1969, 1989, 2009

By June 19, 2009Atlantic Eye

BURY ST. EDMUNDS, England, June 19 (UPI) — I lie on the sofa watching the student demonstrations in Iran, dozing in and out, recovering from food poisoning caught at a Heathrow hotel 37 hours earlier. I cannot help but make historical comparisons. It is the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the 41st of the Prague Spring. How will governments and their leaders react if Iran implodes?

I ask my god-daughter Ellis Jones what I should write about. She is 12. She has just received the top honors as the best French language student of her year at the Culford School. She says I should write about lemons — she likes the smell, she likes lemon drops. Lemons symbolize contentment to her.

A much more believable answer than in the 1980 U.S. presidential debates when President Jimmy Carter claimed his daughter Amy had said “nuclear arms” were the biggest issue facing the United States when he asked her. Of course they were. Amy was also 12 at the time; but it all sounded so precious and hardly believable. It was just 22 months after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In Ellie’s marvelous youthful world, dreaming and contentment are still the order of the day.

The students in Iran, some only six years older than she, are also trying to find their dreams. But they are not content.

Most of the Iranian students were not around when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was toppled in 1979. Most do not remember, and plenty do not even agree with the message of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Most will not know Alexander Dubcek and the 1968 Prague Spring. Many will not know dissident-playwright Vaclav Havel or the 1989 Velvet revolution. But I do.

When we founded the Prague Society in the 90s — out of the Czech underground movement — we had collectively some 300 years behind us. Some had survived the Holocaust, others had survived both that and communism. Several had been disowned and dethroned. Others had been imprisoned. Some had escaped death by a whisker. I was the youngest of the bunch.

To this very day, I seethe when former members of the regime and former members or informants of the secret police pass themselves off as business people. Most Western business people don’t care. They don’t want to know. Plenty of politicians — themselves compromised — don’t want to know either. A former Central European president blamed corruption in his country on “Western business looking the other way or themselves engaging in corruption with their government’s tacit consent.”

So with Iran, will we look the other way? Will we confront a corrupt regime? Will we support the demonstrators?

President Obama’s attempted fine line does not appeal to me at all — though many are calling him politically astute. So the election is “Iran’s to decide.” “It is an internal matter.” But “democratic expressions must be allowed.” I am not sure if I am thinking 1938 or 1968. I do know the Iranian government has already attacked the United States for “meddling.” Well, if we are going to be attacked for it — let’s find a way to do it. At first subtly, but then proactively and intelligently. I would rather that than sitting, waiting and watching.

In 1968 the United States sat idly by as Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops marched into Prague. In 1969 two young Czechs, Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, paid the ultimate price and immolated themselves while most of the world waited and watched as the Soviets demolished the demonstrations. Ilya Rips in Latvia tried the same. Order was returned. It would take 20 more years before democracy would replace communism.

I wonder whether a U.S. president with no memory of Soviet history, with limited international or military experience — but who yet speaks eloquently — will have the courage to stand behind the demonstrators if Iran’s religious masters stoke the flame of power. Hundreds of students have already been beaten. GSM lines cut. Internet sites jammed. Opposition leaders arrested. These methods seem worryingly familiar to me.

As history repeats itself, how will the United States prove it is the defender of democracy?

Mir Hossein Mousavi and his supporters, including former President Mohammed Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are not President Vaclav Havel. They are former members of the regime, albeit reformers in some ways. They did not give students many freedoms when they were in power before. They supported the tenets of a fundamentalist Islam. They pursued nuclear power.

Still, a reformist rule of law in Iran would be better than no democracy at all. But where is the line to be drawn?

Vaclav Havel believed in democracy. He believed in the rule of law. He believed in freedom of the press. He believed in freedom for all. He even believed — with which I and numerous dissidents disagreed — in turning a new leaf and accepting ranking former members of the regime in the new Czech democracy without punishment. I try not to second-guess a man who lived the horror of totalitarianism under constant surveillance. He also spent years in jail.

On that autumn day in November 1989, our friend Vaclav Havel acted decisively in response to the students.

The students in Iran are also acting decisively.

The question is, will Barack Obama act decisively as well?

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He was joined intermittently at the forums by Global Panel Board members former Minister Henrikas Yushkiavitshus of Lithuania; Minister Hassan Abouyoub of Morocco; former Minister and current MP Kurt Bodewig of Germany and US Congressional Advisor Yossef Bodansky.)