// The Iran Media Program provides an in depth media analysis of the recent Grand Bazaar protests which brought Iran’s black market for currency exchange to a screeching halt. Read on for analysis of state controlled media responses, a thorough explanation of the Iranian black market, and what may be in store next. Crossposted with thanks and permission from IMP.
On October 3rd protests erupted in and around Tehran’s Grand Bazaar after Iran’s currency (the rial) plunged to a record 40,000 per US dollar on the black market. Exchanging money through black market street vendors and unregulated exchange houses is commonplace in Iran, with almost an entire neighborhood of exchange houses clustered together and which set the economic tone as Iran’s Central banks have little impact in the informal but very real everyday economy. The government, albeit on a limited basis, sells one US dollar for about 12,500 rials. Recent UN sanctions have driven the government’s prices to all new highs, hiking up exchange rate prices on the black market, leading to a major protest from black market shopkeepers, money exchangers and other citizens.
Protesters chanted from the streets in droves, “Leave Syria alone, think of something for us” and “Mahmoud [Ahmadinejad] the traitor, leave politics.” (Amateur video footage of the protests can be seen here). Security forces shut down currency dealers as well as other operations that trade unregulated currencies as riot police dispersed protesters using tear gas and batons.
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar is Iran’s economic engine and the merchants known as bazaaris are more than simply shopkeepers: they wield tremendous power. A complete market shutdown, like the one during these protests, brings the Iranian economy to a screeching standstill as goods, services, and currency are unable to change hands–it is as if all the traders on Wall Street refused to go to the trading floor. Understanding the consequences of a market crash, the Iranian government and state-controlled media set out to quell the spread of the protest through a series of questionable and haphazardly placed stories and statements.
A day after the protests, Iran’s ultra-conservative Fars News agency, as well as many other news outlets, reported that Tehran’s judiciary had arrested sixteen individuals connected to the disruptions in the bazaar. Various media published a statement by the judiciary explaining that the group of sixteen individuals “had used an atmosphere of psychological war created by the enemy” and colluded with “certain domestic and foreign groups” to exacerbate conditions.
Amidst the turmoil, the Iranian Students’ News Agency announced that the head of the Islamic Federation of Traders and Markets said that while some stores were forced to shut down, shopkeepers were to resume work as normal the next day. “Merchants had no desire for the bazaar to shut down. Instead, plots from the outside are what caused the shut down”… “Bazaaris (merchants) do not scream and yell, nor do they undermine security,” said Karimi Esfehani.
It had been rumored that merchants might close their businesses the day after the street protests in a show of solidarity. Government officials and hardliner news outlets, however, all reported that merchants had no such desire. The government affiliated Mehr News even published a two part series of photos of the bazaar on the next day showing businesses as up and running—implying that the upheavals were in fact incited by a small group of individuals with ulterior motives, and not waves of disgruntled merchants.