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Did the Shah Perform Better or Have the Ayatollahs?

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New York -- 32 years after Iran's revolution, people in the Islamic Republic are asking themselves which government was better. Did the late king, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, perform better or have the Ayatollahs?

On January 16, 1979, the Shah left Iran. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and a revolution took place. At the time of the revolution, people asked for social justice, equality and freedom of speech.

These provocative demands are usually made after revolutions. Iranians too had the same types of demands, and as expected, the last great revolution of the 20th century didn't turn out much different than other revolutions, except for one major difference: power shifted from a dictatorial monarchy to a religious "Ayatollah" kind of dictatorship.

The first 10 years of the revolution was the darkest time for Iran. Executions were carried out, opposition was crushed and political activists and the intelligentsia went undercover throughout Iran. Freedom of expression became a dream. Today, the Iranian regime has had no qualms jailing or torturing its own allies and supporters who now criticize the system of government they helped shape 32 years ago. The government's harsh suppression of popular opposition after the June 2009 elections, in particular, won't be forgotten for years to come. In today's Iran, there is no room for opposition. Even opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been virtually eliminated from Iran's political landscape.

Since June 2009, the Iranian judiciary has accused some of those arrested in the nationwide demonstrations of being members of a "Monarchy Association of Iran" -- an organization most Iranians have barely heard of. It is not clear how active such associations are in Iran or whether they have many supporters, but the clear fact is that what people inside the Islamic Republic are missing today is not necessarily the presence of a Shah in Iran but the country's era of pre-revolutionary status and prosperity. In the run up to the 1979 revolution, Iran had a booming economy and was respected for being the most powerful country in the Middle East region.

Many youths in Iran born after the 1979 revolution base their impression of Iran as a monarchy on what they have read or heard, and are therefore often sympathetic to Iran's era of monarchy. "The king could have crushed the protests (in 1979)," says a 21-year-old student at Tehran University. "By choosing exile instead of ordering the army to shoot protesters or kill Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shah proved his love for Iran."

It thus didn't surprise me when a number of Iranians I have been in touch with from the Iranian capital told me they had participated in the 2009 protests against the outcome of the country's presidential elections even though they had not bothered to vote. It is safe to say that many protesters sought to express dissatisfaction with Iran's very system of government, not just the elections. And although Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karoubi succeeded in prompting massive demonstrations throughout the country in the wake of Iran's contested presidential elections, they have not remained as popular as they once were. Ultimately, they too are members of the Islamic system so many angry and frustrated Iranians hit the streets to protest.

People in Iran seek change and want to have a referendum to weaken the power of the supreme leader. The post-election trauma provided the ideal opportunity for demonstrators and dissatisfied citizens to march in the streets and demand change. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was correct when he claimed that the massive public outcry "wasn't about the ballot boxes."

"They wanted to topple the regime!" he said. And he was right.