Clashes Continue In Iran For Third Day After Grand Bazaar Merchant Protest

Significant economic protests have hit Tehran for the third day and now appear to be spreading to merchant sectors in other cities, similar to the early phase of protests that gripped mostly provincial cities and towns throughout Iran in January.

On Monday merchants in Tehran's sprawling Grand Bazaar shuttered their stores in what state media has described as a protest against rising prices and a weakened currency. Iranian media also acknowledged the heavy presence of security forces in and around the bazaar to maintain order, and reports of clashes in front of parliament. 

Video uploaded to social media and featured in Western news reports show large crowds being dispersed by police tear gas, and some instances of security forces in riot gear charging into half-shuttered shops and hauling away occupants.

Unconfirmed reports and social media video also indicate that police are smashing windows and destroying merchandise and vehicles in retaliation for the unauthorized closure of shops. 

The AP reports that protests and clashes with police grew "a day after protests forced two major shopping centers for mobile phones and electronics to close in Tehran."  While a number of Western media reports are predictably framing the growing unrest as fueled by anti-regime "demonstrators" pressuring traders to close their shops, it appears rooted more simply in shopkeepers' efforts to survive as the Iranian rial plummets.

However, the BBC acknowledged:

The Iranian authorities attempted to halt the rial's slide in April by unifying the official and black market exchange rates and by banning trading at anything other than the official rate of 42,000 rials to the dollar. But dealers say the authorities have failed to keep up with the demand for hard currency since then.

The bazaar closure is rooted in fierce elite competition driven by economic self-interest and not popular politics, according to Iran business analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj.

Currently, a dollar is worth as much as 90,000 rials compared with 65,000 rials before President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, and compared with 42,890 at the close of 2017. Thus the official government-set exchange rate of 42,000 rials to $1 was quickly surpassed in the black market, translating into the simple math of merchants losing money merely by staying open. 

In response the government and Iranian Central Bank have indicated plans to create a "parallel market" next week to combat the black market - though it's unclear what this entails - and to help merchants access hard currency for their imports.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that his country is in a "fight" with the US, blaming US pullout of the JCPOA for "an economic war" and Iran's current crisis. “The US cannot defeat our nation, our enemies are not able to get us to their knees,” he said in response to the growing demonstrations.

Confrontations between protesters and police appear to have continued throughout the day Tuesday, with some video footage revealing grievances over Tehran's costly intervention in places like Syria while the economy is in tailspin at home.

The Washington Free Beacon reports, for example, that citizens are taking to the streets to express opposition to the hardline ruling regime by chanting, "Death to Palestine" and "Leave Syria, think of us," according to an independent translation of videos showing the protests.

Like the late December and early January protests that briefly gripped Iran and focused an international media spotlight on clashes, we could be witnessing the opening act of economic grievances increasingly turning fiercely anti-regime.