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Last updated: February 17. 2013 7:45AM - 32 Views

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TEHRAN, Iran — Police threatened merchants who closed their shops in Tehran's main bazaar and launched crackdowns on sidewalk money changers on Wednesday as part of a push to halt the plunge of Iran's currency, which has shed more than a third its value in less than a week.


The measures underscore the serious concern by officials facing one of the most potentially destabilizing scenarios, which has been partly blamed on the fallout from Western sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.


Public anger has mounted over a punishing combination of a falling currency and rising prices, which have put some staples such as chicken and lamb out of reach of many low-income Iranians.


The shrinking rial also has rekindled bitter internal political feuds between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his powerful rivals, who claim the crisis has also been fed by misguided government monetary policies.


Iran's currency hit a record low of 35,500 rials against the U.S. dollar Tuesday on the unofficial street trading rate, which is widely followed in Iran. It was about 24,000 to the dollar a week ago and close to 10,000 rials for $1 as recently as early 2011.


Exchange houses were closed Wednesday and currency websites were blocked from providing updates.


In a potentially serious showdown, merchants appeared to stage widespread closures in Tehran's bazaar, the traditional business hub in Iran's capital. The sprawling bazaar has played a critical role in charting Iran's political course — leading a revolt that wrung pro-democratic concession from the ruling monarchy more than a century ago and siding with the 1979 Islamic Revolution.


The semiofficial Mehr news agency reported Wednesday that the bazaar was closed for security reasons. The agency later quoted police Col. Khalili Helali as saying that bazaar was not officially closed, but noting that authorities will take action against many merchants who have shuttered their shops.


"The Tehran bazaar is not closed. Police will deal with the guilds that have closed their shops to cause (economic) disruption," Mehr quoted Helali as saying.


Meanwhile, anti-riot police patrolled streets in central Tehran where freelance money dealers work. There were unconfirmed reports of arrests, but Iranian officials have issued no formal statements.


The currency's nosedive has added to the burdens on Iran's economy as it struggles with tougher sanctions targeting its crucial oil exports and measures blocking it from key international banking networks. The U.S. and its allies have imposed the measures in attempts to force Iranian concessions over its nuclear program, which the West says is aimed at developing atomic weapons.


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