Farid Partovi: Sanctions and talk of war make it easier for Iranian regime to repress union organizers
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In Iran on June 15, 60 labor activists at an organizing meeting were arrested by agents of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Sixty were arrested. Nine are still being held.
And now joining us to talk about the situation of union and labor rights in Iran is Farid C. Partovi. He’s the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (known as CUPE) Local 4772. He’s also the spokesperson for the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran, which was formed in 1999 and has branches in North America and Europe. Thanks very much for joining us, Farid.
FARID C. PARTOVI, LABOR ACTIVIST, IASWI: Oh, thank you very much, Paul, and to The Real News for this opportunity.
JAY: So, first of all, tell us what happened at this meeting, the arrests of the 60, and what’s their status.
PARTOVI: Sure. It was a annual general membership meeting of the coordinating committee to help form workers organizations. This is one of the independent workers groups in Iran. There were about 60 delegates, labor activists in this meeting. The meeting took place in the city of Karaj. It’s a large city near Tehran. They were raided by a very large number of security guards and agents of the Intelligence Ministry. They were beaten really severely. All of them were beaten really, really badly, and they got injured and beaten badly. And then they were transferred to an unknown location. A day after they interrogated all of them, they released about 50 of them, but they have kept nine of these labor activists, and there’s no updates on the situation as of today, especially theâ€”it’s a holiday today in Iran.
JAY: And what law were they violating?
PARTOVI: Nothing, really. It was in a private residence. They’reâ€”because the Iranian regime does not allow labor groups to officially meet in public places like convention rooms or, you know, community rooms. So they actually gathered in this place so they could actually conduct their annual membership meeting. This is [incompr.] this is a group that hasn’t been registered, because the regime doesn’t register, doesn’t accept any of the independent group. But it’s an open group. All of their activities are open. All of them are well-known labor activists. So they don’t belong to any opposition political parties or any underground group. They’re all well-known labor activists. So there is no law that was broken whatsoever. [crosstalk]
JAY: But you’re saying there’s a law against public meetings of independent labor organizations. That’s an actual law? Or it’s a practice of repressing them?
PARTOVI: It’s a practice of, basically, repressing them. They are basicallyâ€”they don’t allow any of labor groups that are independent to have their meeting in public places or them register or ask for permit for meetings. So workers groups, usually they try to meet in any place, and sometimes they go to picnic and have meetings, sometimes they go to private residences, you know, that they could hold their meetings. And as I said, this meeting was just a regular or just annual general membership meeting. But the way that they were treated, they were treated so badly. And the way that they raided this house, and the way that everyone was beaten, it was so outrageous.
JAY: Right. Now, President Ahmadinejad portrays himself as an anti-capitalist. Heâ€”an anti-imperialist. He calls himself the president of the workers and poor of Iran. How does that jive with this?
PARTOVI: It’s absolutely nonsense what he’s claiming. It’s farthest from the truth. Maybe he used that at some times during elections, you know, to appeal to the masses of people who’ve been deprived of the most basic needs under the Islamic Republic of Iran, maybe to get their vote. But in reality, he’s actuallyâ€”Ahmadinejad has been extremely repressive, and his state and under his presidency, workers have been repressed even way more than before.
And also, I mean, his policy, even his economic policies, haven’t benefited working people at all. He’s actually been implementing a very aggressive neoliberal agenda. And everyone who’s been critiquing that, they’ve been actually prosecuted, and put in jail as well, including some of the economists who’ve been criticizing his cuts to the most basic subsidies, such as bread and rice and energy prices, and they actually were persecuted just for critiquing his economic policies [crosstalk]
JAY: What are other examples of what you’re calling neoliberal policies?
PARTOVI: Neoliberalâ€”like, for instance, the cuts to subsidies, because what happened, that he’sâ€”basically, they’ve been trying to make sure that [incompr.] expanding and intensifying privatization, deregulations, cutting to all subsidies that people have been having in order to be able to survive, like, as I said, the most basic needs, such as bread and rice and energy costs. And as a result of that, we’ve seen a very large increase, double-digit increase to the rate of inflation and the cost of living, everything, including bread, and bread is absolutely essential in Iranâ€”I mean, skyrocketing. And people have been [incompr.] poverty. And also the number of people who’ve been now living under the poverty line under his presidency has been increasing. There is no social program, economic policy that is actually benefiting the working people and the poor in Iran that he’s been implementing.
JAY: Now, I expect the president, Ahmadinejad, would answer by saying that Iran is the target of terrible sanctions now, a kind of economic warfare, United States and Israel leading the charge. You can actually see in the Israeli press some of the military and security leaders sort of bragging about how successful the sanctions are in undermining the Iranian economy. I mean, how much is this about sanctions versus Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies?
PARTOVI: I think this is a combination of all of these. Let me be clear. Even at our CUPE Ontario convention recently, just a couple of weeks ago, we passed a resolution in support of workers in Iran and for worker-to-worker solidarity, condemning the regime, repression of labor activists. But at the same time, we also condemned the policies of economic sanction and the threats of war by the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. government and its allies. The reason for that: because economic sanctions hasn’t really been damaging the regime; it’s been damaging the working people and the ordinary people. And it’sâ€”people’s access to the most basic needs have been actually much more difficult. And also the threats of war has been actually helping the regime to justify more repression. So that’s why we don’t support economic sanctions or any military intervention in Iran, because we think that it’s not going to benefit the working people. It’s actuallyâ€”its main casualties [incompr.] be ordinary people and working people in Iran.
However, if you go back to so many of the work that we’ve done and labor activists inside Iran has done since the beginning that this regime was able to took power after the ’79 Revolution, one of the first things they did was to actually repress workers. All the independent workers groups, like, for instance, Oil Workers Council, who were formed during the revolution, that actually helped to bring down the regime, the monarchy regime at the time, they all were severely repressed, killed, executed. Many went in exile. So this regime’s always been anti-worker. They’ve been very careful in terms of making sure that there’s no worker organization are being formed.
And then, after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 [incompr.] adopted, basically, structural adjustment programs of IMF and World Bank. And since then, the neoliberal policy’s been implemented in Iran. It’s been a process. It hasn’t started with Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani continued with that, Khatami continued with that, and I think that Ahmadinejad [incompr.] that before even the economic sanctions started actually becoming more serious. And that’s why we think that definitely economic sanctions is affecting people and working people. But their policies have been neoliberal and anti-worker for years.
JAY: Now, one of the unions that I know has been particularly targeted is the bus drivers, and some of the leaders are in prison. What’s a little bit of the history of that, and what’s the status of the leaders that are in prison?
PARTOVI: Yes. The bus workers unionâ€”or the full name is Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company, which has about 17,000 employees. They tried to organize themselves in 2004. And they formed because they had this union years before, maybe more than 20 years ago. But as with any other unions or labor councils, they were also repressed and crushed. So they tried to reorganize themselves, and they organized a large general assembly of workers, during which they elected their board of directors. And right from the very beginning they have been target of all kind of attacks, arrests, basically being sacked from workplaces, persecution, kidnapping.
Their key leaders, most of them had been sacked from their workplaces, and many of them being prosecuted, like Mansour Osanlou, who’s very well known. He has spent more than five years in jail. He was released under harshest conditions right now. He’s out of jail. But, I mean, he cannot do much labor or any political activities. Ebrahim Madadi, their vice president, he was jailed for three and a half years. He just was recently released under harsh conditions. Reza Shahabi, who’s in jail for the past two years, he’s been tortured, beaten so badly he’s almost paralyzed. He needs operation in order to prevent becoming paralyzed. He’s the treasurer of the union. And now he’s been sentenced to six years. All are under this accusation, nonsense accusation, that they’ve been acting against national security.
JAY: So what, in your opinion, is the reason why the regime goes after unions with such vigor?
PARTOVI: It’sâ€”I think probably there’s a number of reasons. Workers been playing an important role, as I said, in 1979 Revolution. And that’s probablyâ€”without their intervention, we could not bring down the regime of Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and people wanted freedom. But unfortunately we got more repressive, fundamental regime taking power, and they knew from the very beginning that they’re going to have to stop progressive forces. So they went after women, they went after all the progressive political parties. [incompr.] they’ve really completely crushed all labor unions.
And also because the poverty has been increasing. I mean, peopleâ€”it’s a country of almost 78Â million people. The majority are working people and their families, and they’re really suffering. We’re talking about 80Â percent of people don’t have permanent jobs anymore. The largest number of people are living under poverty line. Minimum wage is, like, you know, four or five times below poverty line. So it’s really hard to survive.
They’reâ€”and also their policy of repression of all democratic rights of people. So they want to make sure that [incompr.] unions and labor organization are one of the most democratic organization that you could form, and it can help other movements as well. So this regime is very strategic in their repression of independent labor organization and suppression of labor activists.
JAY: And I suppose the leaders of this regime and the forces they represent are essentially, many of them, billionaires and own massive parts of the Iranian economy, and have a lot of investments abroad as well. Is that right?
PARTOVI: Absolutely. There are lots of documentations report that show thatâ€”how much they benefited since they came to power. I mean, these areâ€”most of the privatization that took place, it actuallyâ€”there we have this saying that they’re saying we’re saying these mullahs or ayatollahs and their sons, basically. Basically, they sold all of these to their own family members, their own relatives, their own close ties. And these are really billionaires, that their money that they’ve been stealing from people is just unbelievable. And they all haveâ€”there are lots of reports coming that they have bank accounts in different parts of the world. Even we’re hearing many of them been coming to Canada, including some of the bankers who’ve have been stealing [incompr.] billions of dollars through different corruptions, you know, that they’ve been coming to Canada, they’ve been investing in housing industry and different [incompr.]
JAY: And someâ€”what do you say? Some people say/suggest that this kind of critique of the regime helps in some way or another the sort of American and Israeli forces that want to isolate Iran. You hear the language of human rights from Israel and United States, and that, you know, people shouldn’t be criticizing the regime at a moment like this.
PARTOVI: I realize that. I can tell you as a labor activist and someone who’s closely following the position of Iranian labor movement and progressive forces, they don’tâ€”they in no way or shape or under any justifications support or condone Israeli government’s position or the U.S. position on situation of Iran. I mean, they’re tryingâ€”I think they’re looking for a more independent position, that their war and their conflict has nothing to do with what we’re going through as working people and as ordinary people, as women in Iran. The issue with human rights, they may bring it, but they’re now realizing that by creating a militarization environment in the area, in the region, and by actually putting so much pressure on ordinary people, but also by giving excuses to this regime to continue repressing people, they’re not actually helping in any way. The conflict between U.S., Israeli governments and the Iranian government doesn’t have any progressive side. According to most, if you read some of the positions of Iranian labor movement inside Iran and those who are in exile, this is a common position, that nobody’s taking sides. I think the only people who are supporting intervention by Israeli and U.S. government are maybe some of the pro-monarchy forces that are very small minority.
We are looking for a better system. We think that Islamic Republic of Iran is absolutely repressive. It’s not only anti-worker, but it is so repressive towards women. We have this economics of gender apartheid in Iran. The students movement are being repressed. Freedom ofâ€”we have no freedom of expression. All of this. But we’re not looking for a military intervention; we’re looking for organizing, building mass movements, a progressive, democratic movement that they can exercise their right, they can actuallyâ€”they can be able to actually basically organize for their own self-determination.
And we also have seen what’s been happening in Iraq and other parts of Middle East and North Africa, and it’s very troubling. And we don’t think that’s a prescription for Iran.
JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Farid.
PARTOVI: Oh, thank you so much for this opportunity.
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