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Iran Heats Up: The Bazaar Strikes Back

The death spiral of the Islamic Republic seems to be gathering momentum. That big fire at a major oil well I told you about last week continues unabated, with big flames and clouds of noxious black smoke pouring out.  And these are the people who offered to clean up the much larger catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

But mere physical disaster is trivial compared to the events that are taking place in Iran.  In the past week, the regime has been confronted with two direct challenges: a strike in the grand bazaar of Tehran, and the very public battle between conflicting elements of the regime for control over the Free University. The strike in the bazaar -- protesting a dramatic 70% increase in their taxes -- was taken very seriously by the regime, because the supreme leader and his cronies know that if the merchants turned against them it could prove fatal.  Khamenei capitulated within a few hours, just as he had two years ago when the bazaar shut down for an entire week.  This sudden about-face from the supreme leader did not bring order to the country's markets; the strike continues, which is big news indeed.

The  Tehran bazaar was closed again on Wednesday, and spread to at least two other major cities, Isfahan and Tabriz. The regime reacted violently, sending Revolutionary Guardsmen and Basijis, all in plain clothes, to attack the merchants who had closed their shops. No bullets or clubs this time -- the knife has now become the weapon of choice -- and the Isfahan bazaar was placed under virtual military occupation.

While the strikes may have begun as a narrowly defined economic protest against new taxes, they soon took on a clear political hue, with chants of "death to the dictator!" ringing out across the bazaar.  The latest report I have says that the strikes will continue Thursday, a religious holiday in any event.

This is a very big deal, and everyone knows it. That is why there is violence -- about 80 persons wounded and an unknown number arrested, along with one victim, a very popular merchant in Tehran. Will it spread from the normally pro-regime bazaars to the long-suffering workers in such vital sectors of the national economy as oil and textiles? If it does, the ability of the regime to craft a rational strategy of self-defense will be tested.

Entrail readers will take note that on Tuesday, electricity went out all over Tehran no less than six times, which the regime predictably blamed on sabotage by enemy agents.  And there is a decidedly negative augury on “regime unity.”  Khamenei ran away from deciding the University issue, bravely deciding to leave things as they have been all along. The Free University is a substantial economic and cultural prize, one of the few really big prizes up for grabs in the Shi’ite kleptocracy -- most of the others having been gobbled up by the mullahs or by the top brass at the Revolutionary Guards.  As between physical plant and cash flow, the University is worth several billion dollars. Thus, the battle for control.  Khamenei’s failure to take sides leaves both contenders spitting.