The Middle East Channel

Car bomb hits French embassy in Libya

France's embassy in Tripoli, Libya's capital, was hit Tuesday by what appeared to be a car bomb, wounding two French guards and several residents. The explosion destroyed the reception area of the embassy on the ground-floor and the perimeter wall, as well as nearby homes and shops. A French embassy official said, "We think it was a booby trapped car." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said deaths and greater injury were avoided because the explosion occurred before embassy staff would have been arriving for work in the morning. French President Francois Hollande condemned the attack and said, "France expects the Libyan authorities to shed light on this unacceptable act so that the authors are identified and brought to justice." No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was the first on a diplomatic mission in the city since the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Other similar attacks have been primarily in the eastern city of Benghazi, such as the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate.


Gunmen in an opposition held area of northern Syria have abducted two Christian bishops. Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, were reportedly kidnapped when they were doing "humanitarian work in Aleppo countryside," according to Syrian State TV. A member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Abdulahad Steifo, said the two men were abducted on the road to Aleppo from the opposition held Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. While several prestigious Muslim clerics have been killed since the uprising in Syria began over two years ago, these are the most senior Christian leaders to be caught up in the conflict. Meanwhile, Israel's senior military intelligence analyst, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, made a statement Tuesday that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. Brun's comments came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while visiting Israel, said U.S. intelligence agencies were still investigating suspected chemical weapons use in attacks on March 19 near Damascus and Aleppo. Brun said, "To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin." On Monday, Hagel said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would be a "game changer."


Arguments and Analysis

State of Denial (Ursula Lindsey, Latitude Blog, The New York Times)

"For over two years we have been living surrounded by the faces of the shuhada, or martyrs: the many hundreds of protesters and bystanders who disappeared or died in the 2011 revolution and other violent clashes that followed.

At the height of the initial uprising against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, you could see their blurry, smiling faces on posters, banners and even memorabilia sold in Tahrir Square. In the months since, their stenciled portraits have appeared on walls throughout the city, the work of anonymous graffiti artists.

When President Mohamed Morsi came to power he promised justice to the victims' families. But now he is burying a report by the very fact-finding committee he created last July to investigate abuses against protesters.

Although the document was finished many months ago, it has not been released. It took The Guardian and the privately owned Egyptian newspaperEl Shorouk to publish a series of articles based on leaked copies for us to know what the commission had discovered."

Northern Iraq: Peace, harmony and oil (The Economist)

"BIBLE scholars say the Garden of Eden was in southern Iraq, perhaps where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet. But when Iraqis think of earthly paradise they tend to look north, towards Kurdistan. It is easy to see why. Over Nowruz, the spring holiday celebrated last month, picnickers flocked to the autonomous region's flower-speckled meadows and valleys carved by streams flowing down from snow-capped mountains.

Nature is not Iraqi Kurdistan's only draw. The relative order, security and wealth enjoyed by the 5m residents of Iraq's three Kurdish provinces are the envy of the remaining 25m who live in the battered bulk of Iraq, and of others too. Since 2011 some 130,000 Syrian refugees, nearly all of them ethnic Kurds, have been welcomed in as brothers; the UN says that number could reach 350,000 by the year's end. From the east come Iranian Kurds eager to work on the building sites that bristle across a territory the size of Switzerland. From the north come plane-loads of Turkish businessmen seeking profit from a land so rich in oil that its sweet, cloying smell hangs everywhere. Iraq is now Turkey's second export market after Germany, with 70% of that trade directed to the Kurdish part; 4,000 trucks cross the border daily."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey


The Middle East Channel

Labor and opposition in Iran

As Iran's economy continues to deteriorate, the labor movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes. Iranian labor, encompassing unskilled workers from rural areas and lower-class urban laborers is not a homogenous group. And thus far, Iranian laborers have not joined the opposition Green Movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime's mismanagement, corruption, and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits, and job security -- enough reason for Iranian laborers to organize and oppose the regime. Parallels can be drawn between the Islamic Republic's treatment of the labor movement today and the Shah's treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime's denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker's rights. 

Labor participation in the 1979 revolution was the result of long-standing frustration and resentment toward the Shah's industrialization efforts. The Shah's 1963 White Revolution, which brought major land and industrialization reforms, and Iran's rising oil prices from 1965 to 1975, compelled millions of Iranians to move from rural villages to major cities. The White Revolution's reallocation of rural property from wealthy landowners to farmers led to a steep decline in agricultural productivity. Farms were not as efficient in the hands of farmers as they were under the business-savvy elite. As a result, farming jobs dwindled in the late 1960s, forcing farmers to look to the cities for opportunity. Many of these rural migrants took jobs in construction, factories, and the energy sector.

The Shah's modernization of industry also led to widespread labor dissatisfaction. His promotion of foreign investment (mostly U.S.) and private enterprise in Iran, in conjunction with rapidly rising oil wealth, continued to attract labor from rural areas, where jobs were dwindling. But Iran's booming economy was accompanied by inflation. While the early years of the Shah's industrialization led to job growth, these jobs quickly disappeared as a result of deflationary policies meant to slow spending and growth. With no government programs to bring it out of poverty, the young, poor, and unskilled labor class seethed under harsh conditions. Iran's declining economy, coupled with the rise of Iranian nationalism, created a tinderbox for social upheaval.

On January 9, 1978, government security forces shot and killed protesting theology students in Qom, sparking widespread demonstrations that culminated in the shutdown of Tehran's Grand Bazaar on January 19, 1978. Millions of ordinary Iranians subsequently took part in massive protests, with textile, sanitation, car assembly line, and paper mill workers joining the demonstrators in the summer of 1978. Major strikes included a walkout by 37,000 workers at Iran's national oil refineries and at Iran Air, paralyzing the country's energy and air transportation sectors. The labor movement's participation in the protests was a major turning point in the revolution: Those rising up against the monarchy now included a critical component of the Iranian economy.

The Islamic Republic, which replaced the Shah, has not been much better at addressing labor rights. If anything, the current Iranian regime has made working conditions in Iran even worse than in the Shah's time. Laborers still do not have the right to form independent unions, and incremental achievements in the right to organize and retain benefits have been met with violent government crackdowns.

Since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has kept close tabs on the labor class through government-monitored, ideologically centered unions known as Islamic Labor Councils and Assemblies of Workers' Representatives (for businesses with fewer than 35 employees). The labor councils are, in turn, supervised by the Worker's House, a once-secular labor organization taken over by pro-regime groups after the revolution. All councils must receive official recognition from the Worker's House or face closure. The Labor Councils and Assemblies of Workers' Representatives are loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's ruling conservatives.

But Iran's state-sanctioned labor groups have faced a rising tide of dissent from Iranian laborers in recent years. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies, abetted by the harshest sanctions in Iranian history, have been largely responsible for labor unrest. 

Ahmadinejad's policies, including cutting subsidies and privatizing of publicly owned industry, have greatly hurt the average Iranian laborer. The privatization of Iranian industry has been particularly problematic. Ideally, the practice of privatization allows for the government to offload failing businesses acting as a drag on the economy to the highest bidder. Instead, Ahmadinejad has sold government industries to companies associated with the Revolutionary Guards and ostensibly charitable -- yet largely unaccountable -- foundations (bonyads).

The Ahmadinejad administration's favoritism has translated into greater government influence in industry. As a result, natural market competition between companies that should occur under privatization does not exist. This makes many Iranian companies uncompetitive and unprofitable. The ultimate effect has been salary cuts and mass layoffs of low-skilled laborers. Making things worse is Ahmadinejad's failure to expand social safety nets. Sanctions, in turn, have led to much higher inflation, squeezing labor wages.

The economic decline has resulted in small but widespread strikes and sit-ins. Underground labor groups, ranging from bus drivers to sugar cane workers, have also become more outspoken, staging protests reminiscent of the revolution. One of the most significant was the January 22 sit-in by provincial factory workers in front of the Iranian parliament. Iranian oil workers have also organized protests, such as the February 2011 staged sit-in at Abadan, Iran's largest oil refinery. Both protests were sparked by unpaid wages.

Labor groups participated in various marches organized by the Green Movement after the disputed 2009 presidential election. But the labor movement has not fully embraced Iran's political opposition.

A reason may be the lack of a coherent opposition movement with clearly identifiable and achievable goals. The imprisonment of Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi has left the opposition largely rudderless and thus unable to attract important sects of society, such as the labor movement. The reformist parties, led by such figures as former President Mohammad Khatami, have avoided a serious challenge to the regime and are devoid of power and influence in the political system.

Although Iranian labor may sympathize with certain opposition goals, such as "free elections," it is nevertheless discouraged by the Green Movement's failure to address issues important to Iranian workers, such as fair wages, health care, and workplace safety. Finally, the tension between well-educated reformist elites and the working class -- often portrayed as less educated than reformist intellectuals --has bred some resentment between the two groups. 

Nevertheless, Iran's declining economy could lead to greater labor unrest and the merger of the labor movement with the political opposition. Mansour Osanloo, the leader of Tehran's bus workers' union and one of the most respected labor leaders in Iran, recently stated that "the conditions for regime change exist today in Iran." It is not clear whether there will be a replay of the revolution that overthrew the Shah or whether the labor movement will play a definitive role. However, the Islamic Republic's suppression of labor rights and its poor handling of the economy can only lead to greater instability for the increasingly beleaguered regime.

Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst and Leila Mahnad is a project associate at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.