Hilzoy is absolutely correct: Assuming that there are strong parallels between Eastern Europe in 1989 and Iran’s ferment today would be stupid and risky. Eastern Europeans welcomed our support. Iranians, by contrast, have had reason to suspect American motives ever since we brought down Mossadegh and installed the Shah’s harsh dictatorship. Throwing strong American support behind the protesters might poison their cause for many ordinary Iranians and sharpen the government’s reaction.
But there’s one interesting parallel between 1989 and 2009 when it comes to the roots of discontent: a shortage of housing, though for different reasons and with different consequences. Eastern Europeans lacked apartments because government planners failed to build enough decent units. Iranians are priced out of the market, especially in Tehran, where Time magazine reports prices have risen “as much as 150%” since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.
Shortages of decent, affordable housing tend to be particularly hard on young people trying to strike out on their own, as both examples show. This has an impact on whether and when people choose to marry. In Eastern Europe, couples tended to marry very young, often as soon as they finished their schooling, because married couples had priority over singles in being granted an apartment. I knew a number of East Germans who’d married at 18 or 20 for precisely this reason. Even so, many young couples had to camp out at their parents’ homes while waiting for their own digs.
In Iran, the housing problem is having an opposite effect on young people. Because the issue is high prices rather than an absolute shortage, people are deferring marriage to later and later ages. Time’s reporter, Azedeh Moaveni, presents this conundrum as typical:
Amir Hekmati is a determined 31-year-old civil servant from Tehran’s Narmak neighborhood. He earns the equivalent of $500 a month and has saved assiduously. He’s also managed to secure a loan from the ministry where he works and a small sum from his parents, but even with that he can’t muster enough to buy a studio apartment in an outlying district of the city. Two women he admired turned down his marriage proposals on the grounds that he did not already have his own place. “If women would just agree to be girlfriends and date, we wouldn’t be forced to pursue marriage in the first place,” he complained.
Hekmati can dream on, because even though Iranian women are outstripping men in higher education and are increasingly pursuing careers, social norms haven’t changed enough to embrace premarital sex. Which points out another issue: For at least some young Iranians, deferred marriage doesn’t mean freedom so much as involuntary celibacy.
I don’t want to overstate the similarities between 1989 and 2009. There are immense cultural differences between Iran and the former East Bloc countries. And yet, in both cases supposedly “private” desires for a home, marriage, and family fed into public protests and a desire for political change. Understanding the dynamics of revolution requires breaking down this artificial distinction between private and public.
I don’t think it’s likely that the Iranians can achieve a bloodless revolution through peaceful protests. Against the odds, I’m wholeheartedly hoping they can.