Issues Are Similar, But Iran And Tiananmen Differ

The streets of Tehran look a lot like the streets of Bucharest and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Some of the issues are the same: The crowds are asking for an end to a religious-ideological tyranny that is isolating Iran from the modern world. But this is 2009, and the stakes are both different and higher.

In Bucharest, the fall of the Ceausescu regime was greeted by the demonstrators with delirious joy, but they were back on the streets in June 1990, when it turned out that the elections had been stolen by the dictator's old cronies; it took quite a few years before a stable democracy took hold in Romania.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations had a completely different effect: They were brutally suppressed, and China remains today a one-party state that has no serious popular challenges because the citizens seem to have traded freedoms for prosperity.

Most of the euphoria of the year 1989 seems to have evaporated, replaced everywhere by more or less sober calculations that involve one step forward, as is the case of Romania joining the European Union, and two steps back, as might be the case in Putin's Russia.

The street images from Tehran speak of the same popular desire for freedom, but Iran's rulers have choices. They can accommodate that desire and regain a place for Iran at the table of civilized conversation, or they can repress the street revolts with their considerable police apparatus, continue trying to develop a nuclear arsenal, and become subject to the whims of a raving quasi-dictator.

This last isn't a good option for a country with a large educated middle class, philosophers, poets and many prominent exiles. The Persian empire is long gone, as are all empires for that matter, and there is no good reason why a majority of intelligent, secular people should be subject to megalomaniac dreams of empire, especially a nuclear empire.

If there is an "Obama effect," and I think that there is, the powers that be in Iran will review the elections carefully and listen to the streets. In 1989, the news was carefully controlled everywhere; in 2009, the whole world is watching and listening and hearing — from almost everyone with a cell phone and Internet.

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