1989 was an exciting year to follow the news. No one saw it coming at the beginning of the year. Although Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted the policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain still seemed sound. Early in 1989, Poland instituted some reforms of its own. Although they were western-looking, the changes were not too radical. After all, Poland had faced a Soviet crack-down (which landed Lech Walesa in prison) far more recently than Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The Soviets did nothing. Heartened by that, Hungary (which had been mixing capitalist elements into its economy for years) took things a little further. Then Czechoslovakia opened its borders to the west, resulting in a mass exodus of East Germans via their (uncontrolled) Czech border.
Before a year had passed, Romania's Stalinist dictator and his wife were executed by firing squad (the day before newly-democratic Romania abolished the death penalty), the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was on its way to unification. The changes simply snowballed, energizing people who had been oppressed but highly educated -- a volatile combination for any authoritarian regime.
Now it appears that something similar may be happening in Iran. Friday's elections were not democratic by any sense of the word. Only a few candidates were allowed on the ballot. The real reformers were not even allowed to run. Many young people had boycotted previous elections because they knew nothing could really change with all political authority remaining with Iran's theocracy rather than its elected officials.
But over the past week, after Lebanon's elections (which dealt a serious blow to the Iranian regime-backed Hezbollah), the people of Iran seemed energized to make a statement with their ballots.
Before the polls even closed, text messaging was shut down in Iraq. Other forms of communication (like cell phone networks and many websites) were also shut down or filtered. The government began announcing election returns that favored the incumbent nearly 2-to-1, even in the hometown of challenger Mousavi.
The people of Iran called bullshit. Many of them took to the streets and communicated via Twitter (a new media which the government apparently hadn't yet shut down). As information trickles out, it is looking more and more like the election-rigging was arranged, not by the Ayatollahs, but by the military. It is also looking less like the quickly-squashed Iranian student protests of 1999 and more like the Iranian revolution of 1979.
The Iranian people are mostly young (a whole generation was lost in the war against Iraq). Most of them have no memory of the Shah and his oppressive American-backed regime. Hating the west is something the establishment tells them to do. They have been wanting (and have gradually gotten) more personal freedoms for years. They are among the most highly educated people in the Middle East.
Some of the websites that have been covering the events in Iran have gone down today. I suspect that may be due more to an unprecedented volume of Internet traffic visiting those sites than any hacking by Iran's government. Even Andrew Sullivan's blog, which has been providing a great deal of coverage and links to those other sites, has been loading very slowly for the past few hours.
On a lighter note, is it just me, or does the Iranian underwear model bear a striking resemblance to Paul Stanley?