A Western Tourist Hasn't a Chance in a Persian Bazaar

To get what you want in a Persian bazaar you have to play by the rules. If you don't even know they exist, you are going to be roundly cheated.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar,

Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Eliran Aharon


The West played the role of the dumb tourist as it shopped in the Iranian bazaar.
There are two kinds of markets in the world today: the Western store and the Eastern bazaar. In the West, stores have fixed prices for merchandise, with the cost visible on each item by law. Everyone pays the same amount for his purchases, whether he really wants what is for sale or can manage perfectly well without it.  Westerners are used to this kind of shopping, which is why many of them spend a good deal of time and effort to find the stores with the best prices. The price is objective and based on the merchandise, not on the personality of the seller or the identity of the buyer. You will not find someone arguing about a price in a store in the United States and anyone who dares to do so is regarded like a creature from Mars, a barbarian from another culture.

 In contrast, in the Middle East, bazaar culture is the rule and the relationship between buyer and seller is based on totally different cultural norms. The price varies from minute to minute depending on various factors: how badly the seller needs the money he can get from the sale; how much the buyer wants the merchandise; whether the seller is afraid the buyer will leave him and look for another seller; how many other traders are offering the same item. When the seller needs cash and the buyer can live without the merchandise, when there are other traders with similar items and the buyer can get to them easily  - the price goes down. If the seller is not in need of the money, the buyer really wants the merchandise and especially if he says he is willing to pay anything for it, and if there are no others selling the same thing or it is hard to get to them – the price will be high. This is where market forces play a central role in determining the price of merchandise.

In the Middle Eastern bazaar culture there is another, very important factor, the personal one. The buyer and seller want to see one another, touch one another, talk to each other and feel each other. The interpersonal contact,  smile,  handshake, words of welcome, questions and answers, familiarity, body language, all are part of the negotiations on the price. A deal is not just an economic act, it is an event, almost like a wedding. Factors involved here have nothing to do with economics: if the seller is someone the buyer is not willing to talk to because he is, for example, a Jew, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, Persian, Turk or member of any group the buyer does not like, he will not buy from him even if the item is practically free of charge.

Someone from the West – let's say a tourist, for our purposes  - who enters a Middle Eastern bazaar, gets high from the odors, confused by the scenes, dizzy from the colors, excited by the music, disgusted by the crowding, and then buys whatever he sees because the prices are low, only to discover that night, at his hotel , that he overpaid, the paint is peeling off and the merchandise is falling apart or rotten. Besides, some of it is made in China and can be bought on the internet for half of what he paid.

Why does this happen? Because the tourist didn't know the rules of the bazaar and the traders realized that from a mile away. They don’t mind cheating him because he is a Christian, an  American, a stranger who pays what he is asked and doesn't understand the rules. They also know that he is part of a group of tourists with a limited amount of time to shop in the bazaar and is therefore running from one stand to another in order to manage to buy as many items as possible. He doesn't bargain because he hasn't got the time and is not used to doing that at home in the USA. He thinks it is demeaning to try to bargain down prices.

The negotiations taking place over the last sixteen years between Iran and the West are a perfect example of the cultural abyss between the Western negotiators and their Iranian counterparts, experts at trading in the bazaar where hiding information and cheating are basic principles of their Shiite culture. The differences between the norms of a tourist and the culture of the Persian bazaar brought about the bitter outcome that gave the Iranians the object they needed the most – time. They paid the price of a few sanctions, but now they see those disappearing,  and most important: they have provided very little in terms of limiting their military nuclear plans.

The Iranians played the role of the seller throughout, the seller who doesn't need to be rid of his merchandise and who has all the time in the world. They sold damaged goods over and over in the form of agreements that they did not keep, and the West did not come to the obvious conclusion: they are professional charlatans, inveterate liars and brilliant prevaricators. The reason is that they are the only sellers in the market, and the West  - at least that is how its leaders feel – must reach an agreement with Iran at any price. The Iranians have never felt that the West wants to or is able to give them  - to the Ayatollahs, that is – one good blow that will send them flying from the bazaar to hell so that another trader can take their place. Why, then, should they behave any differently?

The West played the role of the dumb tourist as it shopped in the Iranian bazaar;  the leaders of world powers sent distress signals about deadlines, because they had to come to their voters with proof that they had achieved a peace deal "in our time". The Iranians felt the pressure and raised the price, lowered the quality and sold the West agreements they had no intention of keeping.

They wore down the Western negotiators, a familiar tactic: they offered a little bit, some kind of concession, the West jumped at it only to discover that is was unconnected to the issue at hand. Most important, crucially important, were the smiles on Rouhani's face. They just loved to be able to say that he is not Ahmadinejad, that this is a new, nice , friendly man and cannot possibly be putting one over on us because he is not an extremist. He is one of us because he speaks English, surfs the web and uses a smartphone. Zrif continued to leave a similar impression on them.

The Iranian bazaar was a resounding success, and the Western tourist – who doesn't know the rules – lost once again: he paid the price of granting the Iranians more time and did not get the merchandise he wanted, because he does not have an agreement and it is not certain that he will ever get one as Iran will have the bomb before then – in another seven months.

The West does not understand the most basic fact: there is only one thing that can pressure Iran and the West is not willing to do it:  that is, threatening the continuation of Ayatollah rule. The West has never used that card to get its way, so why should the Ayatollahs pay for an agreement that they do not want?

Worst of all is that there were those that warned the Western powers that they would fall into the Iranian bazaar's pit. One of them was Binyamin Netanyahu, even before he became Prime Minister of Israel. Harold Rhode wrote about it clearly and so did the writer of this article. The problem with those who negotiated with the Iranians is that they thought they knew how Iranians behave, believed the lies of the consummate liars, and the deceptions of the professional deceivers.

History will sadly ridicule the story of how a wayward and stubborn country could pull the wool over the eyes of intelligent and well educated, powerful negotiators who were psychologically incapable of using their power, and ensnare them in a Persian bazaar trap where only someone who learns the rules can survive. 




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