The Iranian government has come under further strain in the wake of the axed nuclear deal, as economic sanctions begin to bite and protests begin to surge once again.
Showing that they still have the clout to unsettle the government, as they did in 1978 when they backed the Islamic Revolution that dethroned the Shah, merchants beneath the vaulted domes of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar last week began shutting their stalls in a protest that lasted for three days.
Though no longer the economic centre of Tehran, the sprawling bazaar still resonates with symbolism.
The question now is how long Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, will last while he’s being pressed by hardliners at home and facing renewed US sanctions abroad.
The hardliners, who have attacked Mr Rouhani since the pragmatist first won elections in 2013, have been blamed for instigating the strike, and have sought to exploit it.
They oppose engagement with the West or rolling back Iran’s interventions in the Middle East.
Merchants say unidentified men had coursed through the pathways of the bazaar, demanding shops be shut, who are thought to be hardliners.
Shots have been fired across the bow, with conservatives close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, even suggesting the country would be better off without a government.
The merchants have their own grievances. The rial has lost almost half its value against the US dollar since Donald Trump, the US President, withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in May and reimposed sanctions.
Hitting out against Mr Trump, Ali Khamenei yesterday (SAT) was reported to have said: "They bring to bear economic pressure to separate the nation from the system… but six US presidents before him tried this and had to give up."
“The strikes may have been triggered by political groups opposing Rouhani, but store owners were also looking for a way to express their protest,” said Maysam, who sells soap and skin care products at the bazaar.
“What we and other store owners at the bazaar want is stability,” he said.
Over the last week footage has been shared on social media showing protesters marching through the bazaar chanting against Iran’s costly intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
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“Leave Syria, think of us.” Protesters marched to parliament, where they were met with police who fired tear gas.
The merchants, however, are prudent. A jeweller at the bazaar, who declined to be named, said some merchants felt compelled to go along with the strike by protesters.
“We have a problem with recession, but closing the stores will damage us more,” she said.
Mr Rouhani has been defiant, telling Iranians to unite and “bring America to its knees” in a speech on Wednesday, while Ali Khamenei has also called for unity, and for protesters to be punished.
But the future remains grim for Mr Rouhani, whose country has yet to feel the full force of US sanctions on Iranian oil exports which come into effect in November.
“The Rouhani administration is now in deep trouble,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations.
The 2015 nuclear deal led by then US President Barack Obama waived an oil embargo against Iran by the EU, and foreign companies began setting up shop in Iran. The EU wants to continue the waiver but Trump’s administration says it expects the Europeans, as well as China and India, to respect the sanctions.
Protests are likely to continue. In December and January, demonstrations initially encouraged by hardliners had spread to dozens of towns and cities and soon spun out of control, with protesters chanting slogans targetting both Mr Rouhani and the hardliners.
“Expectations were high after the nuclear deal that the government would turn the corner and the difficult sanctions era would end,” said Naysan Rafati, the International Crises Group’s Iran analyst.
“But structural issues continue, such as corruption, and mismanagement.”
Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, Brooking’s foreign policy deputy director and former State Department official, says that there is a perception Iran is on the brink of collapse, adding, however that “for the past 40 years Iran has experienced essentially every calamity short of the plague. The leadership has perfected the art of survival."
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