February 7, 2006

Iran’s powerful bazaar braced for atomic storm

By Christian Oliver and Alireza Ronaghi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Traders in Tehran's maze-like bazaar may
have mixed feelings about Iran's atomic ambitions but they have
weathered war and sanctions in the past and many are confident
they can do so again.

Iran was sent to the U.N. Security Council last week for
failing to convince the world its nuclear ambitions are
entirely peaceful, but there was no panic among the piles of
Persian carpets, sacks of turmeric and mountains of tea.

Analysts have said Iran's heavier industries, dependent on
imported petrol, European bank loans and imported parts could
be hammered by sanctions, but the impact on the more
traditional activities of the bazaar could be milder.

Spice-seller Mojtaba Nojaba admitted most of his wares were
imported from India but said he could just as easily sell
home-grown saffron and dried fruit if sanctions were imposed.

"We have already had our examination and have shown we are
not scared of anyone. We are not after nuclear weapons, just
atomic energy and the progress that brings," said the veteran
of the 1980-1988 war of attrition with Iraq.

Although bazaaris say their power is on the wane from the
glory days when they helped the 1979 Islamic revolution
prevail, they remain a political and economic force. Their tiny
stalls are often a humble front for big international trading

Shoeseller Qodratollah Mohammadi also said he backed Iran's
nuclear goals, arguing that sanctions would help local

"At the moment I mainly import Chinese shoes, but are
people going to go barefoot? No, sanctions would boost Iranian
production," he said, tucking into a hearty lamb stew.


Many stalls in the normally teeming bazaar were boarded up
and decked with black pennants to mark the Ashura mourning
period for 7th-century Shi'ite Muslim martyr Hossein.

Thirty or so bazaaris in black shirts beat their chests in
rhythm with anthems celebrating Shi'ite martyrs, while others
gathered round steaming cooking pots of yellow rice pudding.

"Most of us do not give a damn about the nuclear program.
That's the government's problem. We have better things to worry
about," said a carpet-seller who gave his name only as Ali, as
two of his fellow-traders nodded in agreement.

"There are some people, like them, who always just go along
with the government," he said, pointing to the black-shirted
mourners across the passageway.

But the three carpet sellers said they had little to fear
from an international trade embargo.

"Ironically, the last time we came under sanctions, we did
really well. We could command huge prices because carpets under
sanctions were more prized in the United States and were fairly
cheap to smuggle out," said one of Ali's colleagues.

Washington has imposed various sanctions on Iran since the
revolution, but the embargo on carpets was lifted in 2000.

Most bazaar merchants who spoke to Reuters said profits
were down 20 to 30 percent over the last year but none blamed
mounting tensions over the atomic program.

Traders in carpets, Iran's top non-oil export, said Indian
and Chinese copies of their patterns were to blame.

Fabric-seller Asghar Ebadi, seated among his heavy ledgers,
said inflation in raw materials was his main concern.

Any sanctions on Iran's petrol imports would have an
immediate knock-on impact on all prices, analysts say.

"Naturally with a fire like the nuclear program some smoke
stings your eyes," Ebadi said.

"Back in the old days, during the war (with Iraq), we had
lots of trust-based cooperation when times got tough, I am not
sure the young bazaaris are made of the same stuff," he added.