July 12, 2007 -- ONE of Iran's most popular civil-society leaders was ab ducted in Tehran on Tues day after chairing a meeting of trade unionists.
Mansour Osanloo, the 48-year-old president of the Union of Bus Drivers (SKSV), had just stepped off a bus when a group of bearded men emerged from a gray Peugeot and attacked him with clubs and knuckle-dusters.
Shouting, "You are an enemy of Islam," the attackers pushed him into the car and drove away. Witnesses said Osanloo was severely beaten, and his attackers continued to beat him even after they had forced him into their car.
Passengers on the bus, which had halted, tried to restrain the attackers but were held back at gunpoint.
Osanloo's friends and relatives say that secret-service agents had followed him round the clock since his return from Europe last month. On that visit, he addressed a number of international labor meetings in London, Brussels and Geneva.
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.
Other workers have followed his example, creating over 400 independent trade unions with an estimated 1.5 million members. Earlier this year, the independent unions set up the Workers' Organizations and Activists Coordinating Council (WOACC) to foster unity of action. On May 1 (International Labor Day) the WOACC held the first independent workers' marches in Tehran and 11 other major cities since 1979.
Osanloo, regarded by some as "Iran's Lech Walesa," has been abducted by paramilitaries working for the government before. He's also been imprisoned twice, including a spell at Evin, the dreaded "Islamic Alcatraz."
Osanloo has been careful not to give Iran's emerging labor movement a political coloring, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regards the union leader as a threat, for the authorities fear the growth of an independent labor movement.
Workers in independent unions are still no more than 5 percent of wage earners in Iran. Most workers are either not unionized or drafted as members of unions controlled via so-called "Islamic committees."
Osanloo especially angered the authorities with his success in mobilizing international support for the Iranian labor movement. They released him from prison earlier this, and let him go to Europe for the annual conference of the International Transport Workers Federation. His friends believe the authorities had hoped that he would stay in Europe, joining other former dissidents in exile. But Osanloo had no such intention.
In London, he made a passionate appeal to workers throughout the world to support their Iranian counterparts in their quest for decent wages, human working conditions and freedom of association. In Brussels, he met leaders of the General Council of the International Trades Union Conference and managed to "open their eyes to the realities workers' conditions in the Islamic Republic," says one of his friends in Tehran.
For a quarter-century, appeals to Western labor leaders to support their Iranian working-class brethren had fallen on deaf ears, because the Tehran regime was seen as a revolutionary set-up backed by the "toiling masses." 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.
Osanloo also convinced the leaders of the International Labor Organization (of which Iran is full member) to oppose Ahmadinejad's new draft Labor Code. This would abolish virtually every right won by Iranian workers over decades of struggle, and impose rules that WOACC calls "conditions for slave labor, not employment in a free society."
Is Osanloo's abduction related to the meeting he had just chaired? The meeting certainly did two things that the authorities do not like: It condemned the government's announcement that it had "dismissed" and taken into custody six SKSV leaders. And it refused a government demand that bus drivers assume responsibility for imposing stricter "hijab" rules by keeping women passengers limited to the two back seats and forcing women "not dressed according Islamic codes" off any bus.
Osanloo told the meeting that it was not up to the government to decide who should lead the union, and called for the immediate release of his colleagues. He also recalled that a bus driver's task was to drive his passengers to their destinations safely, not to select them according to what they wear.
Mansour Osanloo is a voice for wisdom, moderation and peaceful change in a society ridden by potentially explosive contradictions. To silence that voice would be a tragic loss for Iran's future.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.