Watching history

Like many others, I've been glued to the computer all week watching as events unfolded in Iran. For those of us old enough to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979, the pictures we've been seeing are starkly reminiscent of the unrest leading to the demise of the Shah, even if we're seeing them on YouTube instead of on television accompanied by the voices of Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings. Time marches on.

But if we recognize the similarities, we must also recognize the differences. Iran in 2009 is not the same country as Iran in 1979. For one thing, here is no charismatic religious leader (Khomeini) returning from foreign exile to seize the reins of power left hanging after the sudden exit of the Shah. For another, it is not clear that the good citizens of Iran protesting in the streets want a new _form_ of government, even if they clearly want those in power to obey the laws of the land—and, most importantly, to respect the will of the people.

They may want less clerical interference in their lives, and they may want a liberalization of the religious laws. But it is important to recognize that something like 70% of the Iranian people are age 30 or under. They have grown up under the Islamic Republic, and they never knew the Shah. Anyone hoping for a Pahlavi restoration is bound to be disappointed. It is possible that a more relaxed theocracy will meet the expectations of the people, with a reformist Ayatollah such as Hossein-Ali Montazeri replacing Khamenei—and it is entirely possible that such a government would still prove to be a foil for the West.

Either way, the next 48 hours are likely to prove crucial, as the opposition moves forward with a Saturday protest that the authorities have forbidden. As a former Baha'i, I've seen and heard too much out of Iran to be overly sanguine about the possibilities. Until you've seen the haunted look in the eyes of a Baha'i recently escaped over the Turkish border, you can't really grasp what evil has been perpetrated there in the name of religion over the last 30 years. Once you've seen that look, it never leaves you.

But it is also important to recognize that there are plenty of good people in Iran of all faiths and ethnicities. These people will be marching tomorrow through the streets of Tehran, and Isfahan, and Tabriz, and Shiraz, and what they choose to do in the next couple of days could well determine the fate of Iran for another generation. I am awed by their courage in the face of brutality, and I am honored to support them in their quest for an honest election. Regardless of how events transpire, we may not see Western-style democracy in Iran anytime soon; but if it is ever to be, that is the most fundamental place to start.