Photo: Iran's 1979 Revolution Was Democratic

A reminder of the unpredictability of history and the tragedy of Iran

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On December 10, 1978, several million Iranians crowded into Tehran's streets to protest the dictatorial rule of the Shah and demand popular rule. Though such numbers are impossible to verify, some historians say the crowd was between 6 and 9 million strong. It was then one of the largest popular democratic movements in history, perhaps surpassed at the time only by the Indian independence movement, the Russian revolution, and a handful of the 1848 European uprisings.

This photo from the December 10 march shows a young Iranian boy raising his fist in front of a poster that reads, "Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his own country." It's a reminder that Iran's revolution the next year (the Shah fled in January 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in February) was meant by many of its participants and leaders to be democratic.

After all, the first major act of the new government that March was a national referendum asking Iranians if they wished to abolish the monarchy for an as-yet-undefined "Islamic Republic," which 99% of voters supported. That December -- a year after this photo was taken -- voters approved another referendum, again by 99%, for a new constitution. It was a rejection of colonialism, an historic lead for self-determination and democratic self-rule, a reclaiming of past Persian glory, and the beginning of yet another Iranian tragedy.

Iran's democratic moment was short-lived. The question of how and why the "Islamic Republic" became more Islamic than Republic is a complicated one. Perhaps it was Khomeini's greed for power, perhaps a small group of clerical leaders really did "hijack the revolution" as Westerners often put it, maybe the horrific Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980 and lasted nearly an entire decade encouraged authoritarian backsliding, or maybe it was some combination of these and other factors. But, three short decades later, in 2009, protesters again flooded Tehran to demand their rights and challenge a regime that was losing its popular legitimacy.

This weekend, in the first national election since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole his way to re-election in 2009, relatively few Iranians bothered to visit the polls or, with secret police everywhere, to protest. You have to wonder what the young boy in this photo, who is probably still somewhere in Iran, would say if you'd told him then where his revolution would take his country today.

In the background of the photo is another English-language banner. It reads, "We Will Destroy Yankee Power In Iran." Then, as today, the U.S. was an absolute enemy of revolutionary Iran. Since the CIA-led 1953 coup d'etat against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, in which the U.S. ousted the democratically elected Mossadeq and replaced him with the despised but pro-American Shah, the U.S. had been loathed by Iranians as the dictator's puppet-master.

It's one of Iran's many tragedies that the country should lose its hard-won democracy within a few years but, more than three decades later, still suffer the costs of grueling conflict with the West.