The battle for the bazaar has begun in Iran. It is a contest in which the people of the bazaar areas are taking a stand against Iran's fundamentalists who now control the country.
This confronts the fundamentalist Islamic Republic Party (IRP) with possibly its most threatening internal opposition so far. And, in response, the IRP appears to be gearing itself for a major tussle on the domestic front.
The bazaari (literally, bazaar people or merchants) are part of Iran's powerful traditional middle class. They hope to impose a choice on Ayatollah Khomeini. It would be a choice between the return of the mullahs to the mosques or the cutting down to size of the increasingly unpopular IRP.
The battle for the bazaars began Nov. 8 when the bazaari collected signatures for a petition demanding the release of former foreign minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh. They were joined by similar initiatives in the holy city of Qom, Iran's theological capital.
When Iranian revolutionaries were asked 20 months ago what an Islamic republic was, they did not get much further than sloganeering. Today, however, the bazaaris and part of the clergy are determined to find a workable solution for this Islamic experiment. They feel that the choking grip of the IRP on public affairs, along with IRP mismanagement, leaves them little choice.
"We are now at least defining what an Islamic republic is," says Mr. Ghotbzadeh. He adds that "the Imam will try to create the conditions to support reform because he always sides with the people."
Mr. Ghotbzadeh's first public appearance Nov. 15 after his release was before a crowd of thousands of bazaaris in a covered rectangular square in the center of Tehran. It turned into a massive protest against the "mullah- cracy."
"Our people are tolerant but their tolerance has a limit," the elegantly dressed Mr. Ghotbzadeh told the Monitor Nov. 17 in his first interview since his release. Questioned in his extremely modern office, Mr. Ghotbzadeh went on to say that "the people have economic and social grievances, and their wishes must be fulfilled after the war.
"It is significant that the protest stemmed from Qom and Tehran, the two pillars of our revolution.If certain reforms which are alos the wish of Imam [ Ayatollah Khomeini] are not made, the dissatisfaction will amount." But in a voice choked with bitterness and anger, Ayatollah Khomeini Nov. 16 desperately appealed for national unity and heavily criticized the emerging opposition movement in Qom and Tehran. "Today, their method is that the clergy should go and pray (this is the very plan which the United States and Britain have had for a long time) . . . I regret that this plan is being carried out in Qom," the Imam said.
Ayatollah Khomeini added, "If the Tehran bazaar merchant is in favor of this, then there would be many calamities [if their plans were to be implemented], and if the Tehran and Qom bazaar merchants are not in favor of this, how is it that they did not make any remarks?
"This is the very plan, drawn up by Britain 200 years ago to separate the clergy from poli ticwho want to work actively for Islam. . . ."
The bazaar, a traditional Middle Eastern market, plays a significant role in the Iranian economy and politics. It was an essential ingredient in Ayatollah Khomeini's struggle against the Shah. The bazaaris, economically and socially weakened by the Shah's industrialization programs, had hope for economic and political rehabilitation in the Islamic republic.
Instead, bazaaris today complain about "lack of freedom" and the IRP wishing to enforce its will. "Wait till after the war," warned one bazaari during the Nov. 15 demonstration. "Many people will have to leave the political stage of this country."
Haji Hassan has a carpet shop in the Tehran bazaar and is heavily dependent on the export of his products. But his profits are swallowed up by deposits he forced to make for every exported carpet as a guarantee that the earned foreign currency will flow back to Iran. Haji Hassan explains that exporting carpets implies sending people abroad.
"For every person I send abroad, two people here in Iran have to act as guarantors that he will come back," Haji Hassan says. "This means that they can't go abroad while the third person is traveling. This is not a communist country. Where is our freedom to travel?"
Although the bazaaris in no way long for a return of the Iranian monarchy, they do concede that "everything was easier before, in the sense that the Shah supported capitalism and private enterprises." The bazaaris "hoped that everything would be better after the departure of the Shah. Instead we have lost our capital and gained nothing," says one of them.
Haji Hassan, like many of his colleagues deeply religious, has few positive words for the mullahs, whom he accuses of interfering in every sphere of life and trying to undermine the position of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. "In Iranian history you can see how the mullahs have several times gained power only consequently to prove their incapability," he says.
He adds that "If you shake hands with a mullah you will notice that his hands are as soft as those of a 14-year-old girl because these people never do anything useful."
Haji Hassan admits that national unity demands a postponement of the confrontation till after the war with Iraq. But after the war not only the bazaar people but others as well will make sure that the mullahs will not remain long in power. "We are convinced that if we close the bazaar the workers will support use as they did during the revolution. The Imam is aware of the effect of a strike in the bazaar on the rest of the country," he says.
The IRP, well aware of the power of the bazaar and of Khomeini's sensitivity to popular moods, appears to be trying to use the postponement of a confrontation until after the war with Iraq to strengthen its position.
In Qom the IRP staged a mass demonstration Nov. 16 to "express anger against those enemies of Islam who endeavored to sow the seeds of discord in their exploitative manuevers to destroy Islam."
But a hastily organized IRP mass meeting Nov. 17 in the Khomeini mosque of the Tehran bazaar failed to attract a crowd comparable to the bazaari protest two days earlier.
Diplomats and Iranian political analysts argue that the struggle against the IRP should not be identified with a struggle against the mullahs and the Islamic republic. Many clergymen appear to be deserting the IRP bandwagon before it is too late, fearing that once the war is over IRP may become the scapegoat.
"The IRP has concentrated power in its hands," says Sadeq Ghotbzadeh. "For the first time it will be held responsible for its deeds."