Horrified onlookers in Tehran watched recently as secret police seized a prominent trade union leader and beat him up before abducting him to an undisclosed location. Mansour Osanloo is the latest political figure to run foul of Iran’s hardline Islamist government.
The assault against him, which took place in broad daylight, has prompted ACTU President, Sharan Burrow, to write to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to protest against Osanloo’s kidnapping and to demand his immediate release. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.
The Iranian name, Mansour Osanloo, is as unfamiliar today as was the Polish one, Lech Walesa, exactly 27 years ago this month.
But, like Walesa, Osanloo may also become known worldwide, if he has not already been murdered – something that is a distinct possibility.
Like Lech Walesa, the charismatic Mansour Osanloo, even though now interned and perhaps already murdered, is a brave union leader working under extreme duress.
Authoritarian governments are understandably suspicious of anyone who unexpectedly emerges to represent the aspirations of a sizeable proportion of its citizenry.
The last time a government dropped its guard in the face of a charismatic leader was August 1980 when Lech Walesa moved to organise the Gdansk-based Strike Coordination Committee, after which Poland’s 35-year-old communist regime proved incapable of getting back onto its authoritarian front foot against the nation-wide Solidarity movement.
The historic Gdansk upheavals quickly spread across Poland, igniting ever larger upheavals whose final outcome was the collapse of the Soviet empire that bolshevism’s greatest architect, Joseph Stalin, had constructed between 1944 and 1948.
That outcome explains why Deng Xiaoping’s communists in 1989 moved against those heading the alliance of students, intellectuals and labour activist, killing some 2,000 of these in and around Beijing’s Tianan-men Square.
Neither the Polish nor the Chinese precedents have been ignored by the authoritarian and conspiracy-obsessed regime of Iranian President Mah-moud Ahmadinejad.
Iran’s post-Khomein-ist hard-line Islamic Republic has embarked upon an ambitious path that envisages Tehran becoming the focal point of an Islamist-dominated Middle East based on a purist Iran that will be nuclear-armed.
Unfortunately for its architects, ambitions of such magnitude invariably encounter contradictions and bottlenecks, just as the post-Stalinist Eastern Europe and the USSR did.
Invariably, the outcomes are low productivity, consumer goods shortages, ever longer queues, expanding black markets and stagflation, which together prompt further ideologically-motivated and counterproductive repressive economic and political measures.
That happened in Poland, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and is now happening in Iran where even petrol in this leading oil-producing nation is rationed. The ambitious Ahmadinejad regime is thus within a vicious circle of repression and expanding control.
How better to short-circuit possible strife than to arrest – and perhaps even kill – the one person identified as a likely focal point for mass unrest that could grow to the levels witnessed in Tehran during 1979 when the seemingly impregnable Shah was deposed?
The obvious candidate for such treatment is Mansour Osanloo. Thus, on Tuesday, July 10, the popular 48-year-old union leader – whom many Iranians already regard as “Iran’s Lech Walesa” – was kidnapped in broad daylight while stepping off a Tehran bus.
Osanloo, president of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sandikaye Kargarane Sherkate Vahed, SKSV), had just chaired a union meeting.
As he stepped off the bus, a group of bearded men emerged from a grey Peugeot and set upon him with clubs and knuckle-dusters.
“Enemy of Islam”?
According to one report the kidnappers screamed: “You are an enemy of Islam”, as they forced him into their car and drove off.
According to Iranian-born correspondent, Amir Taheri – who, although now based in Europe, has excellent contacts inside Iran – Osanloo’s friends and relatives claim secret-service agents had been keeping him under 24-hour surveillance since he returned from Europe in June.
“On that visit, he addressed a number of international labour meetings in London, Brussels and Geneva,” Taheri reported in the New York Post.
“In 2004, Osanloo helped create one of the first independent trade unions in Iran since the mullahs’ 1979 seizure of power. He has led two successful transit-worker strikes, forcing the state-owned bus company to offer concessions.”
Since other workers have followed his example, creating over 400 independent trade unions with an estimated 1.5 million members, Osanloo is seen to be at the centre of a growing opposition force.
“Earlier this year, the independent unions set up the Workers’ Organisations and Activists Coordinating Council (WOACC) to foster unity of action,” Taheri said.
“On May 1 (International Labour Day), the WOACC held the first independent workers’ marches in Tehran and 11 other major cities since 1979.”
Taheri said Osanloo had been abducted by government-employed Islamist paramilitaries before. “He’s also been imprisoned twice, including a spell at Evin, the dreaded ‘Islamic Alcatraz’,” he said.
“Osanloo has been careful not to give Iran’s emerging labour movement a political colouring; but President Ahmadinejad regards the union leader as a threat, for the authorities fear the growth of an independent labour movement.
“Workers in independent unions are still no more than five per cent of wage-earners in Iran. Most workers are either not unionised or drafted as members of unions controlled via so-called ‘Islamic committees’.”
Release from prison
Osanloo was released from Evin prison shortly before being allowed to fly to Europe for the annual conference of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
It is believed the government thought he might remain in Europe like several other Iranian labour leaders. But Osanloo, like Walesa, never intended deserting his country and the struggle that’s he’s embarked upon.
In London he appealed to workers worldwide to back their Iranian brothers for better working conditions and freedom of association.
In Brussels he addressed the leadership of the General Council of the International Trades Union Conference.
One of Osanloo’s Tehran friends told Taheri that in Brussels he had managed to “open their eyes to the realities of workers’ conditions in the Islamic Republic”. This is seen as a major break-through, since the Iranian labour movement has been unable to convince Western labour leaders of the plight of its members.
“Osanloo altered that perception, persuading at least some Western unionists that suspicion or even hatred of America shouldn’t translate into support for the Iranian regime in its repression of workers,” Taheri said.
“Osanloo also convinced the leaders of the International Labour Organization (of which Iran is a full member) to oppose Ahmadinejad’s new draft labour code.
“This would abolish virtually every right won by Iranian workers over decades of struggle, and impose rules that WOACC calls ‘conditions for slave labour, not employment in a free society’.”
Interestingly, the meeting that Osanloo had chaired just before his kidnapping had condemned a government announcement that it had sacked and arrested six SKSV leaders.
The meeting also rejected outright a government demand that bus-drivers be responsible for policing strict “hijab” rules designed to ensure female passengers can only use the two back rows in buses – a move reminiscent of South African apartheid – and to force women “not dressed according to Islamic codes” off any bus.
Clearly, Osanloo and his union’s stance on such hard-line Islamist demands has deeply annoyed many who are in power.
Taheri has further pointed out that, over recent months, more than 100,000 women and young have been arrested and accosted on charges of “contravening the Islamic Dress Code”.
Iran’s universities are presently being purged, with several hundred detained, for alleged “un-Islamic” sentiments. Several dozen newspapers and magazines have been shut with more authors and books being banned.
Along with Osanloo, about 30 other unionists have been arrested and a news agency dealing with Iranian labour relations issues has been closed.
A state of emergency exists in Iran’s four western provinces that have high non-Persian minorities and in areas bordering Pakistan.
The hard-line Islamist Ahmadi-nejad clique is combating real and perceived political rivals, including one-time President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with threats to release details of their “alleged corruption and misuse of public funds between 1989 and 2005”.
And, finally, two Iranian-born Americans, Haleh Esfandirari-Bakhash and Kian Tajbakhsh, who have a record of promoting cautious American contacts with Iran have been arrested and have appeared on television “confessing” to promoting a “velvet revolution” while visiting Tehran.
It is therefore difficult not to see parallels with pre-1980 Poland and other restive Soviet satellites during the 1950s to 1980s.
Osanloo’s determination to remain in Iran has also frustrated hopes that he be isolated.
Should Osanloo prevail, then it is inevitable that the long-standing Khomeinist blueprint to project the 1979 Islamic revolution across the Islamic world would be swept away in the same way that communism was expunged from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union within a decade of Walesa climbing over the wall at Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard.
Although few in the West know of the Osanloo kidnapping and the likely consequences if he and his workers’ efforts continue, some key figures, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), have added their voice to the small number of official protests.
ACTU President, Sharan Burrow, wrote to President Ahmadinejad two days after Osanloo’s kidnapping.
Her decision to add her and the ACTU’s backing to the campaign for Osanloo’s immediate release means Australia can stand tall.
– Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher.