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

February 1, 1979, was the most important day in the life of Mohsen Rafiqdoost. On that day the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran by plane from a fourteen-year exile imposed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had left two weeks earlier. Khomeini's plane arrived from Paris. The route from the airport to downtown Tehran was lined with adoring millions. Rafiqdoost pulled his car up to the plane. He was to be Khomeini's driver and the chief of Khomeini's personal-security detail.

"What kind of car was it?" I asked.

Rafiqdoost's eyes flashed. His face exploded in a self-satisfied grin. "A Chevy Blazer," he said.

I met Rafiqdoost during a visit to Iran not long ago, and we spent more than two hours talking in his Tehran office. He seemed every bit the bodyguard. Energy and aggression rippled from his compact, slightly stocky physique as he sat on the edge of his chair, tapping his foot and banging his thigh with his fist, and nodding his head whenever he had a point to make. Rafiqdoost has a short salt-and-pepper beard and thin straight hair that is only now, in his mid-fifties, showing signs of receding. His profile is vaguely feral, in a way that makes him look menacing without making him ugly. His small, beetle-shell eyes radiate a playful dangerousness.

During our meeting Rafiqdoost straddled the line between suave and sleazy. He could almost have passed for a nightclub bouncer. He wore a designer-quality striped shirt, a well-tailored black sports jacket, and gray slacks. His beard was neatly clipped. On his feet, though, were rubber beach thongs—a high-quality brand like the kind sold in L. L. Bean catalogues. Rafiqdoost apologized for the thongs. "I forgot that a visitor was expected. They are more comfortable to work in."

He was quite serious about the work. Around his desktop computer was a clutter of notes and documents, upon which lay a pair of reading glasses with fashionable frames. Iran, somewhat like Turkey, and unlike most places in the Third World, is a place where office desks are used for real work rather than merely for the display of petty bureaucratic power. The desk and the office managed to be impressive nonetheless, with fashionable olive-gray chairs and a Sony television set.

Rafiqdoost is definitely a man of parts, and a dynamic one at that—as talented and dangerous with his computer as he is with his fists. That is why I wanted to see him. For Rafiqdoost had not only been Khomeini's chief bodyguard. He also played a key role in forming the Revolutionary Guards that brutally crushed secular moderates and members of the leftist Mojahedin-e Khalq (People's Holy Warriors), among other supposed enemies of the Islamic Revolution. Rafiqdoost now controls something called the Bonyad-e Mostazafan (Foundation of the Oppressed), Iran's largest holding company. The Bonyad is made up of some 1,200 firms, and was established with money confiscated from the Shah's family and from prominent industrialists who fled the revolution. One Iranian, no fan of Rafiqdoost's, calls this foundation—ostensibly an operation to help the poor—"the greatest cartel in history." Rafiqdoost is, in all probability, worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

When I entered his office, he offered me his hand as if from a podium. He had little modesty. He knew his importance.

How Rafiqdoost happened to be behind the wheel of that Chevy Blazer the day Khomeini returned to Iran, how he took control of a substantial part of the Shah's fortune, and how he converted that fortune into an even bigger financial empire—these are things for which a Marxist would have a ready answer: they are the result of Rafiqdoost's socio-economic class. In this case the Marxist would be right. Rafiqdoost is a bazaari, a member of the class of people who helped make the Iranian Revolution.

Ironically, the Marxist probably never would have identified the bazaaris as a social class in the first place. This is because Marxists see classes only as they relate to the means of production, not as they actually function. As Nikki R. Keddi has pointed out, in Roots of Revolution, bazaaris don't fall into any of the usual categories.The worker in a hole-in-the-wall shop in the bazaar is certainly in a position different from that of a big moneylender in the bazaar. But both the laborer and the moneylender are bazaaris. They are both involved in petty trade of a traditional, or nearly traditional, kind, centered on the bazaar and its Islamic culture. At least, that has been the usual definition of bazaari.

Bazaar is a Persian word that means "market." Westerners often use it interchangeably with the Arabic word souk for markets throughout Muslim North Africa and the Near East. The bazaar is often the first place tourists head for, in order to lose themselves in serpentine alleys lined with shops, sometimes built under picturesque archways—as in Tunis or Jerusalem—conjuring up the cliché of the "fabulous East." Although Western goods are sold in the bazaar, and bazaaris sell souvenirs to Western tourists and smile before their cameras, real Westernization—supermarkets, department stores, machine-made goods, large banks—threatens the bazaari's livelihood. The smile before the camera, therefore, is often a deceptive one.

But bazaaris are not simply the men behind the stalls in the picturesque Oriental market. According to a relatively new definition that has taken hold among academics and journalists in the past few decades, bazaaris as a social class can exist only in places where the society is in the midst of an awkward modernization; where the bazaar is in some stage of transition between the world of A Thousand and One Nights and that of the suburban shopping mall; where the welder's sparks singe the classic image of turbaned men inhaling tobacco smoke from hubble-bubbles.

Bazaaris, therefore, though age-old in the historical sense, are relatively new in the political sense. The Muslim Brotherhood—the Ikhwan—in Egypt is heavily backed by bazaari types. Although that organization, so dangerous to pro-Western regimes in the Near East, consists largely of narrowly educated men of peasant background, it is the better-educated sons of traditional bazaaris, like Rafiqdoost, being a slight step up on the social ladder, who often lead the narrowly educated men in trying to topple an established order.

In other words, bazaaris constitute a sort of newly established Islamic petty bourgeoisie. They must compete with more-experienced Christian and Jewish merchants, both in and outside the bazaar. This competition quickens the bazaaris' resentments, which are often similar to those that were in evidence among the petty bourgeoisie in Europe during the age of industrialization.

The Near East at the end of the twentieth century is, of course, a region in great social turmoil and economic transition, as Europe was throughout the nineteenth century and in the twentieth until the Second World War. Bazaari types are increasingly significant politically, as the case of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests. "Rafiqdoost," an Iranian friend explained, "is an absolute bazaari through and through": a boy of the streets who learned math with a scratch pad at his father's fruit stand. In the Muslim Near East, especially in Iran, only a bazaari could assume the roles of both bodyguard and financier.

What has distinguished Iranian bazaaris from those in other fast-changing societies in the Islamic world is their close links with the clergy, or ulama, a relationship that developed during the nineteenth century under the rule of the Qajar shahs. As Nikki Keddie writes,

Ulama and bazaaris often belonged to the same families; much ulama income came from levies paid mainly by bazaaris; the guilds often celebrated religious or partly religious ceremonies for which the services of ulama were needed; and piety and religious observance were among the signs of bazaar standing or leadership. (Even today respectable bazaar shopkeepers and moneylenders are often addressed as "Hajji," whether or not the speaker knows if the addressee has made a pilgrimage justifying this form of address.) Entry into the ulama through study was an avenue of upward social mobility and entailed more respect than entry into Qajar service. Mosques and shrines [located close to the bazaar] were a major area of bast (refuge) for individuals and groups

But the bazaari looks at religion from a businessman's point of view. As one Iranian acquaintance explained, "The bazaari is willing to bend the rules of religion for the sake of finance." The so-called hypocrisy and corruption of the Iranian clergy sometimes stem from the bazaari backgrounds of many of the mullahs.

"Describe a stereotypical bazaari," I asked a longtime foreign resident of Tehran who speaks Persian. He answered, putting it in the form of a caricature, "A bazaari is a fat guy with meaty hands and fingers like kebabs, with gold rings on them. He sits in his shop and sips tea. He trades. He makes a lot of money and he prays several times a day. He comes home at night to a big, expensive house with nothing of taste in it, where he has a wife who slaves for him."

"Yes, I am a bazaari ," a vendor in the Tehran bazaar told me. "I buy and sell things."

"In other words, you are a thief," interjected the vendor next to him, laughing.

Vahid, the son of a mullah in Tehran, told me, "A bazaari will say to himself, 'I am a man of God who prays very often, so if I say that such and such a carpet that I wish to sell to you is worth so-many rials, that is the true worth of the carpet, since a religious man like me would never lie.' Because the bazaari is religious, he believes that he is always right." He went on, "The word for 'beard' in Persian can be pashm, which also means 'wool.' The bazaari, while stroking his beard, will say to a customer regarding a carpet for sale, 'Yes, this is made of very good wool.'"

The bazaar where Rafiqdoost grew up is the quintessential bazaar in transition: a labyrinthine world of corrugated iron roofs, brick archways, and plate glass in the midst of a poor working-class region of South Tehran. It lacks any trace of beauty—save for the eighteenth-century Imam Khomeini Mosque (formerly the Shah Mosque) at its center—and is filled with every manner of goods, from chadors and carpets to pots and pans to radios and television sets to American candy bars.

Rafiqdoost grew up as not just a bazaari but, more specifically, a meydani ("person of the square"): someone who worked in the fruit-and-vegetable market and therefore had few business connections with Westerners or their companies—of the sort that, for example, a seller of expensive carpets or electronic goods would have had. Yet Rafiqdoost's clan is not unsophisticated: members of his extended family include doctors and engineers. Rafiqdoost's brother used to run another of the handful of large revolutionary foundations established with money confiscated from the Shah.

"I was born in South Tehran, near the bazaar, to a very religious family close to the Imam," Rafiqdoost told me. "I was always pro-Imam. I am a self-made man. I was not allowed to enter university, because I was expelled from high school in 1953, when I was thirteen, for pro-Mosaddeq activities. [Mohammad Mosaddeq was the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalized Western oil companies in 1951 and was subsequently overthrown in a 1953 coup organized, in part, by the Central Intelligence Agency.] Anti-Shah sentiment was something I learned in my home growing up. In 1976 I was jailed for political reasons. Four months before the revolution, in 1978, I was released when the people stormed the prisons [as part of the series of demonstrations that culminated in the Shah's downfall]. Immediately after leaving prison I became a contact point for anti-regime people, and for distributing the Imam's decrees from Paris. I was also hiding people from the Shah's police. When the Imam decided to return to Iran, a revolutionary council was organized. I was given the task of logistics and personal security for the Imam. That's when I decided that I myself would be the Imam's driver." Though Rafiqdoost is not now known for violence, his past leadership of the violent Revolutionary Guards demonstrates to all in Iran his capacity for it.

I asked Rafiqdoost about the financial particulars of the Bonyad, the Foundation of the Oppressed, whose 1,200 companies are involved in mining, housing construction, transportation, hotels, and tourism. In 1993, Rafiqdoost said, the Bonyad made a profit of 250 billion rials, or, in 1993 terms, roughly $100 million. "The first part of our profits go for the victims of the Shah and the wounded in the eight-year war with Iraq. The second part is for high schools in poor areas, for public-health clinics, for clothes for five hundred thousand needy students. The third part is for reinvesting."

I did not doubt the foundation's commitment to the needy and the war wounded. The amputee who operated the elevator that took me up to Rafiqdoost's office was only one of a number of handicapped young men I saw working there. But the Foundation of the Oppressed, as the largest holding company in an oil-producing country of about 65 million people, has gargantuan amounts of real estate, cash, and other assets. It is a state within a state. The foundation's headquarters, where I met with Rafiqdoost, consists of three new office towers of polished white stone; I had to pass through two heavily guarded checkpoints in order to enter the complex. It was more impressive than any government ministry I saw in Tehran.

Were the amputees who were employed inside, along with the charity work and the whole aura of do-goodism exemplified by the foundation's very name, merely façades—like the milk factory that was thought to be a cover for a chemical-weapons facility in Iraq? Was the foundation's emphasis on helping the "oppressed" the tactical equivalent of putting a terrorists' training facility near a school or hospital, as was done in Lebanon?

I asked myself such cynical questions because the Foundation of the Oppressed and other revolutionary foundations established with the Shah's money are answerable only to the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, to whose home Rafiqdoost says he goes to pray. Iran's elected President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has little control over the foundation's activities. The ability of the Central Bank of Iran to tax the foundation, or to monitor its foreign-currency flows—let alone audit its activities—is close to nil. In the view of a Washington-based analyst, "Rafiqdoost is a New Age bazaari, with few of the redeeming virtues of his forefathers. He is a mobster-trader: a dark, rootless master monopolist." Who can say to what groups in the Middle East and elsewhere Rafiqdoost may be sending checks? Rafiqdoost and Khameneh'i can. Khameneh'i's photograph hangs in a large and ornate gold frame in Rafiqdoost's office, next to a similarly framed photograph of Imam Khomeini. Conspicuous by its absence is a picture of President Rafsanjani, whose cabinet includes American-educated technocrats who for years have tried unsuccessfully, because of insufficient political clout, to move Iran closer to the West.

But the possibility that Rafiqdoost is operating a financial and logistical clearinghouse for international terrorism was less intriguing to me than the possibility that the Foundation of the Oppressed represents a new kind of economic organization in a new kind of emerging state. Such a state will be well suited to the porous borders and the political chaos of the region. The empire to Iran's north, the Soviet Union, has collapsed, bringing into existence a collection of weakly governed fiefdoms in Central Asia; the state to the east, Afghanistan, has disintegrated into landlocked emirates based on drug trafficking; the state to the west, Iraq, an artificial construct of European colonialism, is a veritable penitentiary facing eventual explosion and possible collapse; and the state to the northwest, Turkey, is engaged in a violent struggle between Turks and Kurds over the ethnic duality of its Anatolian land mass.

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 is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In