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At Tehran's grand bazaar, a season of discontent

By Robert TaitContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2005



TEHRAN

It was once the spiritual core of Iran's Islamic revolution, where popular anger and financial support welled for the movement that swept away the Shah in 1979 and propelled the mullahs to power.

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But today, Tehran's grand bazaar - a sprawling indoor retail mall selling everything from Persian rugs to women's bikinis - is host to very different sentiments.

Instead of loyally supporting the Islamic regime, this bastion of political and religious conservatism is reflecting the seething resentments and discontents now finding expression across Iranian society.

The sum manifestation of the bazaar's dissatisfaction is a widespread intent not to vote in next month's presidential election, in which eight candidates - of 1,014 initially registered - have been cleared to run by the watchdog Guardian Council.

"We won't vote for any of them - they are robbers," said Hasan, a textile wholesaler.

Hasan's threat, echoed by fellow traders, presents a grim prospect for leaders who hope for a high turnout to establish their democratic legitimacy.

Hasan should be one of the regime's most fervent champions. Fidgeting with prayer beads, he removes from his wallet two photos of turbaned clerics whom he says are close relatives. "I am from a clerical family," he explains. "I campaigned in 1979 for the forces of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini to get rid of the Shah. But this religion has got us tied by our hands and feet."

Voicing the heretical opinion that the system of velayet-e faqih (infallible rule by a supreme religious jurisprudent) is inappropriate for Iran, he goes on: "The first characteristic of a marja-e taqlid (a senior cleric with a following) should be courage. None of them have that. In the past, if somebody insulted clerics, you would argue with them. But why should we do that now? Why shouldn't we criticize them if they have been lying?"

Hasan's accusations range from the general to the specific. He says authorities lied about Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photographer who died of injuries sustained in custody after she was arrested for taking photos of a demonstration two years ago.

He is angry about the mullah's involvement in key sectors of the economy. The most qualified cleric, he says, is Grand Ayatollah Ali-Hosein Montazeri, at one time the chosen successor of Khomenei, who was put under house arrest.

Within this seemingly inchoate potpourri lies a theme: unhappiness with 26 years of Islamic rule. Into this comes the election, scheduled for June 17. The front- runner is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-time former president, who claims he can heal the rift between reformers and hard-liners. Mr. Rafsanjani, who was president between 1989 and 1997, also says he wants to ease tensions with America.

His main challenger is Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a hard-line former chief of police who casts himself as a modernizer.

The bazaar should be friendly territory for Rafsanjani, a mid-level cleric who was among the original revolutionary cadre of 1979. Located in Tehran's rundown southern quarters, its leading traders have been pivotal allies of the religious establishment.

An exclusively male preserve, its traditionalism remains strong today. But there is little evidence Rafsanjani will benefit from that. Many traders pinpoint his free-market reforms as the root of many ills - inflation, unemployment, drug addiction, and poverty.

"I don't think anyone will vote for Rafsanjani," said Ali, another textile wholesaler. "During his first presidency, there was widespread poverty. The only people who will vote are those government employees who need the election stamp on their documents to keep their jobs. The bazaar is still conservative, but our souls have been killed."

Reza, a carpet trader, voiced another discontent. "The poor feel insecure because they have uncomfortable lives that often force them into prostitution and drug addiction," he says, adding that he will not vote. "The rich are worried because they feel they could be arrested at any time.

"What they are showing is not the true Islam. It should be about giving welfare to people, not oppressing them."

One crumb of comfort for Rafsanjani came from Hossein Mohammadi, also a carpet trader, who said he would vote for him. "There are candidates we don't know and I feel safer with Rafsanjani," he says. "If you are hungry, you don't care about politicians, whether it's Rafsanjani, Saddam [Hussein], or Hitler."

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