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Iranian police patrol tense Tehran bazaar in wake of protests

October 4, 2012 | 12:17 pm

TEHRAN -- In the wake of demonstrations in Tehran over surging prices and the plunging value of Iran's  currency, police patrolled the city's central bazaar Thursday as many shops remained shuttered in silent protest.

Tehran's massive traditional marketplace in effect was shut down Wednesday as shops closed their doors and merchants joined in angry demonstrations over their economic woes. Carpet sellers reopened their shops Thursday and tried to woo customers, but more than a third of shops still appeared to be closed, though shoppers continued to stream by.

Gold and cloth markets were closed. Some jewelry shops were open, but had failed to set up their  window displays, leaving gold wares inside their safes instead of arraying them to lure customers. The deeper that shoppers strolled into the labyrinth of the bazaar, the fewer shops were open.

“We wholesalers don’t know what to do. The cost of the raw material increases. Retailers can’t buy from us as before, because we have to increase our prices too,” said Ebrahim, a clothing wholesaler who didn't want to give his last name to foreign media. His store was shuttered most of the day.

The unusual outburst of protests Wednesday came after the latest drop in the value of the rial, which has tumbled as much as 80% in the last year as Iran has been squeezed by international economic sanctions. As Iranians have bought up foreign currency, anxious about the fate of the rial, its value has only fallen further.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to redirect anger over the sinking rial at a news conference Tuesday, firing back at both “the economic war of the enemy” and critics inside the country who say government mismanagement is to blame for the crisis.

But his words were unconvincing to frustrated merchants such as Hasan, a 65-year-old goldsmith and jewelry seller who said he had stopped by the bazaar only briefly to assess the situation before going home.

“Why on Earth don’t the authorities stabilize the price of our national currency?” complained the merchant, who only provided his first name for security reasons. “Business is impossible.”

Ahmadinejad also declared Tuesday that security forces should stop 22 unnamed ringleaders who he said were to blame for the price swings. Sixteen people were arrested Thursday as “currency disturbers,” the Mashregh news agency close to the government reported. No more details were immediately available.

Only licensed shops are allowed to legally exchange money. Yet street dealers were still plying their trade Thursday in back alleys, seeking 31,000 rials per dollar -- less than the soaring prices seen on Iranian streets on Tuesday but still much more than a week ago, when a dollar could be bought for 26,900 rials.

As the rial keeps falling, prices for food and other goods have shot up, angering Iranians. Some customers have complained that merchants have boosted prices beyond what is necessary.

At a west Tehran grocery store, a young man argued with a shopkeepers over the cost of Winston cigarettes. “I bought the same brand on Tuesday for 20,000 rials a package. Now on Thursday you’re selling them for 30,000 rials?” he complained. The shopkeeper repeatedly insisted his supplier had set a new price.

The bazaar merchants, seen as firm backers of the Islamic Revolution, are unlikely rabble rousers in Iran, more often supporters of the status quo than change agents. Their turn to the streets has earned sympathy from other Iranians suffering the economic squeeze.

Iranian media reported that police would make shopkeepers open their businesses on Saturday, the start of the work week in Iran. Closing shops to create an economic disruption is illegal, senior police commander Khalili Helali reportedly said, threatening to seal up shops of striking merchants, Bloomberg reported.

Business guild leaders reportedly pledged that the markets would be open. But several shopkeepers told The Times that if the rial sank further against the dollar, their shops would stay closed.

The unrest has been seen in the West as a sign that economic sanctions meant to pressure Iran to curb its disputed nuclear program are having an effect. Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, but Western powers suspect it is trying to gain the capacity to make an atomic weapon.

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-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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