At the time of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, two-thirds of Iran's wholesale trade and at least 30 percent of imports were transacted through Tehran's bazaar merchants. The merchandise did not necessarily physically pass through the bazaar, but the bazaaris controlled the trade. The bazaar was the national commercial emporium for the import of almost all consumer goods and for many intermediate goods used as inputs in manufacturing. The bazaar was also an important public forum; the exchange of information that took place as part of the hustle and bustle of trade was arguably the most important conduit for news for the key opinion-shapers in society. And the bazaar merchants were a powerhouse in Iranian politics through their financial and political support for traditional clerics. It is little exaggeration to say that the bazaar made the revolution.
Based on many interviews in the bazaar as well as extensive research in original sources, Keshavarzian, assistant professor of government at Connecticut College, documents how the power of the pre-revolution bazaar was a product of the shah's modernizing and development approach that, paradoxically, had been intended to undercut the bazaar. The state's new, formal structures allowed little room for the social networks and personal contacts that defined bazaar culture; since such interpersonal relations were central to how Iranians approached business, the bazaar's power was magnified.
To continue the paradox, today the Islamic Revolution has undercut the strength of the bazaar despite being sympathetic to bazaar merchants. Every aspect of life under the Islamic Republic is based on individual-level patronage, not on formal structures. The bazaar cannot compete in influence with the network of social relations formed through ties to influential clerics and to revolutionary institutions, such as the foundations that control much of the Islamic Republic's economy. Meanwhile, patronage via the revolutionary elite has exposed and inflamed internal divisions in the bazaar, undercutting group solidarity.
As a result, the Islamic Republic has—without at all intending to do so—succeeded at forcing the transformation the shah desired but could not accomplish. Today the modernization of the bazaar has been accomplished through the imposition of contemporary transaction methods: contractually based exchanges, arm's-length exchanges, standardized goods, and fixed prices. The bazaar merchant's reputation is no longer the key to his business success. And the bazaar no longer maintains the kind of internal cohesion necessary to mobilize the business community for political ends. So much so, Keshavarzian convincingly shows, that Tehran's bazaar is no longer an important political force.