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Hoping against hope for Iranian democracy

Society may have reached "the end of history," Francis Fukayama proclaimed in 1992. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trend seemed clear: Even the world's totalitarian states were evolving in the direction of Western liberal democracy, the "final form of human government."

But the years since 1992 haven't offered much support for Fukayama's thesis.

Or have they?

As Iranians take to the streets, Americans can see that there's power in Fukayama's idea yet.

In 1992, Iran seemed to be about as far from Western democracy as a society could get. In fact, Iran's growth as a fundamentalist Muslim state was thought to disprove Fukayama's argument.

In Iran, a majority "chose" to live under dictatorial rule because that rule embodied Islam, critics said. After all, once Iranians had ousted the Shah in the late 1970s, they could have created their own liberal democratic government. Many in the Carter administration believed Iranians would do just that.

But the Iranian people chose not to do so, or so it seemed. Instead, they elevated the Ayatollah Khomeini, who turned out to be one of the 20th century's most repressive and domineering autocrats -- and that's saying something.

Did the rise of fundamentalist Islam shatter any pattern toward "The End of History"? Was liberal democracy fated to be just another failed style of governance in a centuries-long string?

Well ...

Maybe not, judging by events in Iran today.

As the Carter administration learned, it's foolish to predict the outcome of a popular revolution, especially one that's partially motivated by religious zeal. Could Iran throw out its current leadership, only to install even more repressive set of leaders? Yes. That's a real possibility.

But 2009 differs from 1978 in one key way, which is that Iranians now have had the experience of 30 years of theocratic rule -- and people by the thousands are marching in protest of exactly that regime.

They're demanding democratic rights, in other words. They're chanting in favor of freer speech, a freer press and freer elections. In fact, the protests started because of voters' widespread perception of election fraud.

Yes, the regime still could win. Yes, there are countries in the world such as Russia that seem to have slid backward toward repression. Yes, China now stands as strong evidence against Fukayama's idea. It's a society that's trying to deliver economic growth without allowing political freedom.

But as the 1989 protests in Tienanmen Square suggested, while the democratic impulse may be suppressed, it can't be eliminated -- even in China.

And if you're old enough to remember Khomeini's strident anti-Americanism and terrifying rule in Iran, then you can't help but be inspired as Iranians use American principles as hammers against Khomeini's heirs and their autocratic rule. --- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald