As a student of history and a political activist, there are few things I find as inspiring as thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of people pouring into the streets to protest a repressive government and demand their basic human rights, whether it's Boston in 1773, Paris in 1789, Petrograd in 1917, Washington, D.C. in 1963, Prague in 1968, Tiananmen Square in 1989, Berlin in 1989, Tehran in 1979, or Tehran in 2009'
Without the perspective of history, it's hard, in the moment, to predict the ultimate consequences of the massive popular demonstrations in Iran.
But in Boston, a few years after 1773, such actions helped bring forth "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
In Washington, in 1963, they helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and resulted in a more perfect union which, a generation later, led to the election of the first African American president in American history.
In Petrograd in 1917, they led to the overthrow of a repressive Czarist regime, but then, a few years later, to the installation of a repressive Stalinist regime.
In Tehran, in 1979, they led to the overthrow of the repressive Shah, but then to the installation of an Islamic theocracy.
In Berlin, in 1989, they led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of totalitarian communism in Eastern Europe.
In Tiananmen Square, in 1989, the government was able to brutally suppress the protests and maintain political power by a combination of political repression and economic liberalization.
Will the result of the current mass demonstrations in Iran end up being more like Berlin in 1989, or Tiananmen Square in 1989? It's impossible to know yet.
But I do know this. When a regime loses legitimacy in the eyes of its young people, its intellectuals, and its middle classes, forces are unleashed which the regime cannot control and which will ultimately lead to dramatic political and social change. The Iranian Mullahs probably don't have the resources of the Chinese Communists to simply brutally repress democratic dissent and buy off the people with economic development, without serious protest (or even the covert support) from the rest of the West. If the Mullahs simply repress the aspirations of a new generation of Iranians for more freedom and greater participation in the community of nations, they will face even greater isolation from the rest of the world and greater disenchantment from Iran's younger generation, which in the long run is unsustainable.
The genie is out of the bottle in Iran, and whether it's a matter of weeks or a matter of years, the Islamic Republic will never be the same.