A Bazaari's World

To understand Iran—and perhaps even the future of other parts of the Islamic world—one must understand a man like Mohsen Rafiqdoost

Might the most enduring legacy of the Islamic Revolution be the bazaari nature of the Iranian economy? The bazaaris have created a political and economic system that is a larger version of the South Tehran bazaar. The Bonyad and the other foundations are expanded versions of the wholesalers and retailers with whom small shopkeepers are not in a position to compete, because they can't afford the bribes and don't have the connections. The alliance between bazaaris and clergy now exists at a higher level too. As in the bazaar, the rules are far more flexible and contradictory than those that any nation-state system familiar to a Westerner would ever tolerate. Some enterprises may import and export dollars; some may not. Some can do it at this rate of exchange; others must do it at that rate of exchange.

The ancient and informal roadside-banking system in Iran is often more reliable than the official banking system, where one might deposit money today and find that it can't be withdrawn tomorrow, unless the teller is bribed. Huge profits are being hidden and spent on who knows what. But that doesn't mean the poor have been forgotten. Like traditional bazaaris, all the corporate bazaaris give alms. (I didn't see more than a few beggars during an entire month in Iran.) Rafiqdoost, I mean to suggest, is still the fruit seller. He goes over his books with a computer rather than a scratch pad. As a devout Muslim, he gives a generous portion of his proceeds to the needy. He deals with the authorities on an informal after-hours basis. Here is a murky cosmos of deals and mutual favors for which written laws have yet to be drafted.

The bazaar isn't so much filling a void in post-revolutionary Iran as it is defining the chaos. The most telling fact about the Iran of the mid-1990s is that the system of competing power centers bequeathed by the revolution is breaking down, and yet nothing, and no one, is even remotely on the horizon to serve as a replacement. The monarchy, an institution with which Iranians had a troubled history long before the Shah, has been discredited. The military is possibly too deeply divided to take back power. As for democracy, the freely elected parliament is merely a venue for factionalism and attacks against the government. True, the present ruling coalition of radical mullahs and the security services could fissure, leaving the parliament and the presidential cabinet in control. Such a development would hardly bring stability. And if, as is more likely in the short run, the power of the mullahs under Ali Khameneh'i increases, then so will the influence of the bazaaris, and of their way of doing things. But there are limits to how much even this regime can get away with. If any recent event demonstrates the fragility of Iran's quickly ossifying revolutionary system, it is the conviction late last year of eight businessmen closely connected with the ruling clerics, including Rafiqdoost's brother, Morteza, on charges of stealing and embezzling as much as $400 million. The public outcry made it impossible for the regime to protect even its own moneymen. One of the eight was hanged, and Rafiqdoost's brother got a life sentence. Rafiqdoost himself was sufficiently threatened that Ali Khameneh'i had to reaffirm him publicly as the head of the Foundation of the Oppressed.

Nevertheless, while observing and listening to Rafiqdoost, I wondered, Might this be normality? Might this be it ? Might Iran constitute a culture that is too urbane and sophisticated for a one-man thugocracy like the ones that obtain next door in Iraq and Syria, yet not sophisticated enough for a reasonably functioning and stable democracy? Is Iran—like so many other entities in the Middle East and Central Asia—evolving into something neither authoritarian nor democratic nor even organized the way a state is ordinarily thought to be? I could not escape the conviction that the twenty-first century will see the implosion of political Islam and the rise of the Islamic bazaar state.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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