First brought to Iran by Russian merchants in the late 19th century, the cigarette is now deeply embedded in Iranian social life. Today, about one fifth of Iranians are considered regular smokers. Nearly 2.5 billion packs of cigarettes are sold in Iran each year.
Yet a mystery smolders beneath Iran’s cigarette addiction. While about half of all cigarettes consumed in Iran are produced by a government monopoly, approximately twenty percent are smuggled into the country. One out of every five packs bought in Iran are of unclear provenance, untaxed, and often lack the required health warnings. This enormous black market of cigarettes is hidden in plain sight, with contraband packs sold openly in shops and markets.
The prevalence of smuggling in any economy is usually interpreted as a sign of state weakness, an indication that the rule of law is poorly enforced, that borders are porous, and that organized crime runs rampant. But this interpretation does not apply to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that has remained remarkably stable and steadfast in the face of internal, regional, and international threats.
How then to account for the government’s tolerance of smuggled cigarettes? Any exploration of that question must begin at the historical center of all Iranian commercial affairs, Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.
Tehran is a metropolis of 14 million people. Iran’s capital grew in a disorganized way, with its surging population overwhelming all attempts at urban planning. Like Los Angeles, it is decentralized and sprawling, with nightmarish traffic to match. The city is largely divided by class, with high-rise, wealthier enclaves nestled against the mountains in the north, and the predominantly working class, low-rise districts to the south.
If Tehran does have a center, it is the Grand Bazaar. Dating to the late 18th century, the bazaar sits at the heart of the city, where Iranians of all walks of life cross paths. Its winding arcades cover an area larger than one square kilometer, and contain thousands of storefronts as well as restaurants, mosques, schools, and other facilities. It remains one of the most important structures in Tehran.