On April 9, 2007, Iranian security forces arrested Mahmoud Salehi, the former president of the Bakery Workers' Association in Saqez, a town in the Kurdistan province of northwestern Iran. They transferred him to prison in Sanandaj, the provincial capital, where he remains.
Salehi's labor activity dates to May 1, 1983, when, as a 21-year-old, he organized a labor protest in Mahabad that resulted in a one-day work stoppage at sixty local bakeries. Forced to leave Mahabad, one of the largest cities in the region, he returned to Saqez where, in 1986, the Intelligence Ministry again arrested him for his attempt to organize workers protesting poor working conditions. Released from prison after three years, he resumed his union activities, founding the Trade Association of Saqez Bakery Workers in 1994. Police harassed him, arresting him during several weeks in 1995 and 1999. In 2000, while European leaders toasted President Muhammad Khatami, whom they considered a reformist, the Iranian judiciary imprisoned Salehi for ten months and forcibly stripped him of his union affiliation. Even though he had received a permit from the governor to participate, state security officers arrested Salehi during his 2001 May Day address. Released three days later, the Intelligence Ministry ordered his dismissal from work.
Beginning on May 1, 2004, after security forces again arrested labor activists at a rally in Saqez, Salehi and six colleagues went on a hunger strike. Although the Iranian government released the activists on bail, they maintained the charges against them for organizing an illegal union. On several subsequent occasions, Iranian security forces briefly detained Salehi and his colleagues for questioning.
On November 11, 2006, the Saqez Revolutionary Court sentenced Salehi to four years imprisonment although the Kurdistan Court of Appeals reduced this sentence to one year. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has condemned the subsequent trials, which were held behind closed doors.
On April 9, 2007, and without any notice or court summons, Iranian police took Salehi to prison. The Iranian government has since denied him medical care despite his advanced kidney disease. Salehi's imprisonment marks an acceleration in the Iranian government's fight against independent labor. Three months after Salehi's re-arrest, Iranian police also returned Mansour Osanlou, the head of the Tehran bus drivers' union (profiled in the Winter 2007 Middle East Quarterly), to prison. Police continue to round up union activists from a number of sectors.
On August 8, 2007, Salehi smuggled a letter from prison that stated, "Workers in Iran are in a delicate situation in which they are moving beyond lack of organizations to a new stage in which mass organizations are being formed. We have to be out during this stage."
What a contrast there is between the silence greeting Salehi's pleas and those of Polish trade unionist Lech Walesa, who in August 1980 led a strike that the autocratic government in Warsaw deemed illegal. Rather than ignore the striking workers, U.S. president Ronald Reagan and various European leaders spoke out on Walesa's behalf. In 1983, Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize and, upon communism's crumble, assumed Poland's presidency. Rather than enable history to repeat in Iran, though, U.S. and European silence condemns a new generation of Iranian Walesa's to rot in prison.
Michael Rubin is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
 "Iran: Free Mahmoud Salehi Now," LabourStart.org, Apr. 18, 2007, accessed Oct. 3, 2007.
 "Mahmoud Salehi's Brief Biography," International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran, accessed Oct. 3, 2007.
 "ICFTU takes complaints of crumbling respect for workers' rights to the highest level," news release, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Feb. 14, 2005.
 "Earlier today the security forces in Saghez rearrested Mahmoud Salehi," news release, Iranian Workers' Solidarity Network, Apr. 9, 2007.
 Michael Rubin, "Dissident Watch: Mansour Osanlou," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007, p. 96.
 "Message of Mahmoud Salehi from Sanandaj Prison," International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran, Aug. 8, 2007.