TEHRAN, Iran – Just one shop among the thousands in Tehran’s sprawling Grand Bazaar can offer a tableau of the darkening mood descending across Iran as American sanctions again take hold.
A salesman who wants to move to Europe for a better life shows off his pots and pans to a mother now struggling to pay for the gifts she wanted before her daughter’s marriage amid the collapse of Iran’s rial currency. Another salesman loudly blames internal politics and corruption for the country’s woes. Muttered curses and even shouts against the government follow the journalists talking to them.
While only a small moment in a nation of 80 million people, it shows the dangers ahead for the government of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani. His signature nuclear deal with world powers now has become a noose around his neck that hard-liners gleefully tighten. Meanwhile, the sporadic and leaderless protests the nation has seen over its worsening economy threaten to roar back to life at any time.
That has many expecting the worst is yet to come.
“It has become more difficult, but we need to lower our expectations,” said Kiana Ismaili, 26, shopping ahead of her wedding.
For centuries, Iran’s bazaar has been the beating heart of both its economic and political life. While some now go to the Western-style mega-malls of Tehran’s tony northern suburbs, the Grand Bazaar’s narrow alleys, cramped stalls and wandering musicians still draw crowds of thousands.
Strikes in Iran’s bazaar also have served as political bellwethers.
Bazaar families opposed the Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and supported the 1979 Islamic Revolution that saw him replaced by the Shiite theocracy and elected officials. More recently in June, protesters swarmed Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and forced shopkeepers to close their stalls, apparently in anger over the rial dropping to 90,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market despite government attempts to control the currency rate.
The rial in the meantime has dropped as much as 150,000 to $1 with many anticipating further drops as the U.S. restores punishing sanctions on Iran’s crucial oil industry in early November. The Trump administration denies it is seeking to overthrow Iran’s government through the economic pressure, though Iranian officials say the link between the two is clear.
Fear over the economy has brought many to the Grand Bazaar in recent days to buy what they can before their savings further dwindle away.
“People are buying more because they think they won’t be able to buy stuff with current prices anymore. They are worried about price fluctuations,” said Omid Farhadi, a 25-year-old sales clerk at the kitchenware shop Zomorrod, or “Emerald” in Farsi.
“You have no price stability in this country. You go to bed and overnight a car that was worth 100 million rials is now worth 140 million.”
As shoppers looked over his pots and pans, Farhadi said he hoped to immigrate soon to the Netherlands. He said other young Iranians with the financial means want to leave the country as well, while those without, longingly look at life in Europe.
Farhadi largely blamed Iran’s poor relations with the rest of the world for the faltering economy.
That’s spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s decision to pull America out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. While the United Nations repeatedly has said Iran complies with the accord, Trump said he wanted a stricter deal that also constrained Iran’s ballistic missile program and its foreign policy while permanently limiting its atomic program.
While Iranians remain angry at Trump over adding them to his travel ban and pulling out of the deal, many feel even angrier at their own government. That’s due to a steady stream of corruption cases and allegations of mismanagement by officials.
Farhadi’s colleague at the shop made a point to tell visiting Associated Press journalists he believed Iran’s main problem lay with Rouhani’s administration. The government’s management of Iran’s economy, already hobbled by high unemployment, growing inflation and debt-laden banks, also faces widespread criticsm.
“Ninety percent of our problems are because of the infighting,” said salesman Alireza Alihosseini. “I don’t know why but the government and the supreme leader have differences. Only 10 to 5 percent is because of America.”
The mother of Ismaili, the young woman shopping ahead of her wedding, then came up and asked to talk as well. She spoke carefully about how Iran has faced sanctions and international pressure in the nearly 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, calling the recent pressure nothing new.
Men listening to her speak then started muttering, some cursing her loudly for her comments. A man in the market, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals for his criticism of the government, put his blame squarely on those in charge of the country.
“For someone like me, a young man, if I’m hungry and I don’t have a job I’ll turn into a thief. I’ll turn into a vampire,” he warned.
Elsewhere in the market, some even defended Trump, like Mahdirashid Mohammadzadeh, whose small stall in the jewelry section of the bazaar has seen customers eagerly buying gold as a hedge against the falling rial.
“Once we made peace with Obama, we were never so cheap,” he said.
Asked what caused the economic woes, Mohammadzadeh blamed Iran’s costly foreign intervention in Syria.
“This is the people’s money,” he said. “We have done nothing wrong to deserve this, but they are sending all our money to Syria.”
Associated Press television producer Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.