Urban Society

Iran Table of Contents

Historically, towns in Iran have been administrative, commercial, and manufacturing centers. The traditional political elite consisted of families whose wealth was derived from land and/or trade and from which were recruited the official representatives of the central government. In larger cities, these families could trace their power and influence back several generations. Influential families were also found among the Shia clergy in the largest cities. The middle stratum included merchants and owners of artisan workshops. The lowest class of urban society included the artisans, laborers, and providers of personal services, such as barbers, bath attendants, shoemakers, tailors, and servants. Most of these, especially the artisans, who were organized into trade associations or guilds, worked in the covered bazaars of the towns.

The urban bazaar historically has been the heart of the Iranian town. In virtually all towns the bazaar is a covered street, or series of streets and alleyways, lined with small shops grouped by service or product. One part of the bazaar contains the shops of cloth and apparel dealers; another section those of carpet makers and merchants; and still another, the workshops of artisans making goods of copper, brass, or other metals, leather, cotton, and wool. In small towns the bazaar might be the equivalent of a narrow, block-long street; in the largest cities, such as Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, and Shiraz, the bazaar is a warren of streets that contains warehouses, restaurants, baths, mosques, schools, and gardens in addition to hundreds and hundreds of shops.

The modernization policies of the Pahlavi shahs both preserved and transformed all of these aspects of urban society. This process also led to the rapid growth of the urban population. The extension of central government authority throughout the country fostered the expansion of administrative apparatuses in all major provincial centers. By the 1970s, such cities were sites not just of the principal political and security offices but also of the local branches of diverse government offices such as education, justice, taxation, and telecommunications.

The establishment of modern factories displaced the numerous artisan workshops. Parts of old bazaars were destroyed to create wide streets. Merchants were encouraged to locate retail shops along these new streets rather than in the bazaars. Many of the stores that opened to meet the increased demand for commerce and services from the rapidly expanding urban population were in the new streets. The political elite in the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty spoke of the bazaars as symbols of backwardness and advanced plans to replace some of them with modern shopping malls.

The Urban Political Elite

Prior to the Revolution of 1979, the political elite of the towns consisted of the shah and his family and court in Tehran and the representatives of the monarchy in the provincial towns. These representatives included provincial governors and city mayors, all of whom were appointed by Tehran; high-level government officials; high- ranking military officers; the wealthiest industrialists and financiers; the most prominent merchants; and the best known professionals in law, medicine, and education. The highest ranks of the Shia clergy--the clerics who had obtained the status of ayatollah--were no longer considered part of the national elite by the mid-1970s, although this social group had been very important in the elite from the seventeenth to the mid- twentieth century.

The Revolution of 1979 swept aside this old elite. Although the old political elite was not physically removed, albeit many of its members voluntarily or involuntarily went into exile, it was stripped of its political power. The new elite consisted first and foremost of the higher ranks of the Shia clergy. The most important administrative, military, and security positions were filled by lay politicians who supported the rule of the clergy. The majority of the lay political elite had their origins in the prerevolutionary middle class, especially the bazaar families.

The Bazaar

Opposing the political elite through much of the twentieth century has been the bazaar, an important political, economic, and social force in Iran since at least the time of the Qajar dynasty. The Pahlavi shahs viewed the bazaar as an impediment to the modern society that they wished to create and sought to enact policies that would erode the bazaar's importance. They were aware that the alliance of the mercantile and artisan forces of the bazaar with the Shia clergy posed a serious threat to royal government, as occurred in 1890 and again during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07. The emergence of such an alliance in the period from 1923 to 1924 is believed by many scholars to have convinced Reza Shah not to establish a republic, as Atatürk had done in Turkey, but to establish a new dynasty based upon his family.

Reza Shah recognized the potential power of the bazaar, and he was apparently determined to control it. As his secularization programs had adversely affected the clergy, many of his economic reforms hurt the bazaar. His son also sought to control the influence of the bazaar. As a consequence, the bazaar remained a locus of opposition to both Pahlavi shahs. During 1978 the bazaar spearheaded the strikes that paralyzed some sectors of the economy and provided support for the political actions of the Shia clergy. In essence, the feared alliance of the bazaar and clergy had once again come to play a pivotal role in effecting political change in Iran.

The Republic has been much more solicitous of the bazaar than was the Pahlavi dynasty. Several of the early economic programs implemented by the governments of the Republic have benefited the interests of the bazaar; nevertheless, the complexities of managing an economy under the impact of a total war have also forced the central government to adopt economic policies that the bazaar has opposed. Generally, the government leaders have favored varying degrees of state regulation over such economic issues as the pricing of basic commodities and foreign trade, while entrepreneurs, bazaar merchants, and some prominent clergy have opposed such restrictions. These economic issues have been among the main reasons for the emergence of two contentious factions among the political elite.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress