Penn: Sides with Iran's oppressors. August 1, 2007 -- THE way part of the West ern left portrays Iran, you'd think that it's a pro gressive regime opposed by a few rich reactionaries beholden to the United States.
American leftists like Michael Moore, Sean Penn and Noam Chomsky have persuaded themselves that anyone who shouts "Death to America!" is fighting for "repressed humanity." The champagne-and-caviar socialists of Paris and London, meanwhile, claim that the only Iranians who oppose the mullahs are middle-class intellectuals who often have dual Iranian-U.S. citizenship - and, thus, deserve to be tortured in Tehran as hostages.
In truth, however, the Islamic Republic, far from representing the poor masses of Iran, is an instrument of domination for a new class of rulers who control the national economy through oil revenues.
Over the last quarter-century, the mullahs and their relatives, plus and a few thousand military and security officers, have morphed into a nomenclatura. They have the best jobs, receive the most favors and enjoy priority access to goods, services and opportunities for social advancement.
The pre-revolution middle classes, formed over 150 years, have all but dissolved into poverty, with a good part finding refuge in exile. An estimated 6.5 million Iranians, almost 10 percent of the country's population, have emigrated. The International Monetary Fund reports that more than 150,000 educated Iranians flee the country each year, "the biggest brain drain in history."
In fact, the most serious challenge to the new ruling class comes from what the left labels "the popular masses." Spearheading the fight are groups of urban workers who have started to flex their muscles in the last two to three years.
Starting next Thursday, these workers will confront President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration through a series of one-hour strikes to show solidarity with imprisoned trade unionists.
The regime began a crackdown on independent trade unions last April. The Workers' Organizations and Activists Coordinating Council (WOACC) notes that more than 600 labor leaders have been arrested or "made to disappear." Another 4,500 workers have been dismissed, often without pay, on vague charges of "fomenting unrest" at various state-owned projects. The largest number of arrests came at the May 1 International Labor Day marches organized by the WOACC, representing independent trade unionists, in defiance of state-sponsored ceremonies.
Next week's protests, however, will focus on two imprisoned independent union men:
* Mahmoud Salehi, leader of the Union of Bakery Workers in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, was arrested April 9. Security men raided his home, beat up his family and carried him to an unknown destination.
* Mansour Osanloo, president of the Tehran Bus Workers' Union, was abducted July 10 on a Tehran street and thrown into Evin Prison, "The Islamic Alcatraz."
Salehi's wife, Najibeh, says the union leader is seriously ill; rumors claim that one of his kidneys collapsed after weeks of torture designed to force him to offer televised "confessions."
Salehi has not been formally charged; meanwhile, the state-controlled media spread false rumors - that he is a member of the Kurdish Communist Party, wants to detach the province from Iran and is working with Washington to bring "Jewish-Crusader democracy" to Iran.
Salehi, 45, is a charismatic figure and magnetic orator. He started as an apprentice baker at aged 14, and in 2004 rose to become a founder of the city's independent bakery workers' union. A year later, he organized a "Day Without Bread" in support of hundreds of Kurdish intellectuals, teachers and workers imprisoned, often without charge.
Later, Salehi achieved national stature by emerging as a key figure in creating WOACC, Iran's first independent nationwide organization of workers, with branches in 18 of Iran's 30 provinces.
The day Osanlou was arrested, he had presided over a meeting of his executive committee that rejected new government rules. These ordered bus drivers and conductors not to admit passengers who violate the Islamic Dress Code, passed into law last May, and to restrict women passengers to buses' back seats.
Osanloo's lawyer, Parviz Khorshid, says that he hasn't been allowed to visit his client and that his demand for a medical examination of the prisoner was rejected.
The authorities have already disbanded the Iran Labor News Agency, an independent service covering the free union movement. They have also arrested 32 WOACC militants.
Despite the repression, the movement seems to be picking up momentum. A strike has shut down the textile factories Sanandaj, Salehi's hometown. In Asaluyeh, on the Persian Gulf, described by many as "the largest labor camp in the world," the estimated 150,000 workers at a dozen oil and gas projects are expected to walk out.
Dozens of state-owned factories have come to a standstill as a result of strikes in Arak, Kermanshah, Alborz, Qazvin, Bushehr, Sari and several other cities.
The good news is that Western trade unionists are beginning to pay attention to the struggle of their fellow workers. Several European unions have called for Salehi, Osanloo and other Iranian trade unionists to be released. There is some hope that American labor will follow.
Somewhere along the line, the Western left may realize that it has been duped by a few anti-American slogans into supporting a regime that is dedicated to destroying whatever progressive ideals it once espoused.