EAST Germany's Eric Honecker, Panama's Manuel Noriega, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu - 1989 was a tough year for tyrants. Add to their abrupt downfalls the more peaceful transitions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Poland; take into account the ferment in the Baltics and the Bush-Gorbachev meeting in Malta, and the palpable euphoria over global affairs is understandable. For once, it seems, the optimists have it: The world is indisputably becoming a better place.
All of which makes the exceptions stand out in harsher contrast. One such exception is Iran. Two recent events in that much-oppressed nation might have moved it toward democracy: The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and the end of the tyranny of Ayatollah Khomeini last summer. Neither did. According to the Iranian resistance group, the People's Mojahedin, there have been more than 12,000 political executions since the end of the that war. And despite the accession of President Hashemi Rafsanjani, there are still alleged to be some 140,000 political prisoners under systematic torture. So egregious is the Iranian situation, in fact, that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has taken a strong interest in the case, and is sending its special representative, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl of El Salvador, on a fact-finding visit to Iran later this month.
All of which throws sand in the argumentative gears of those who claim that democracy is about to sweep the world. The impulses for freedom and individual expression that have transformed the East bloc are not, apparently, universal. Why is Iran - the last nation Mr. Ceausescu visited and one that apparently sent troops to help him shore up his regime late last month - so different?
There are two obvious reasons. First, although it shares a longer border with the Soviet Union than any Warsaw Pact nation, Iran hasn't been under the Kremlin's domination. So the relaxation of control that sent the winds of perestroika whirling across the central European plains never mattered in Iran. From Tehran's viewpoint, little has changed.
Second, the ideology brewed up in the Marxist-Leninist kitchens never seeped south into Iran. So when it went sour, Iran hardly noticed. The two superpowers, wedded respectively to capitalism and communism, see the world as a struggle between those alternatives. The Iranian regime, despising both, asserts a third, aggressively theological, ideology. In a letter last June lashing out at the United Nations' condemnation of its abysmal record on human rights, the Iranian government defended its use of torture and executions on just such grounds. ``By its divine outlook,'' wrote an official from the foreign ministry, ``the Islamic judicial system embodies far more superior values than any other judicial system for man and life.''
So what will Mr. Pohl find when he visits? His hosts, intent on educating him in their theology, can hardly be expected to show him anything worse than he has already recounted in the 34 harrowing pages of his most recent report, published in November. But neither, given the strength of his allegations, are his hosts apt to succeed in transforming his next report into a whitewash.
So the impact of the visit may be largely symbolic. And in that regard, it is well timed. Tyranny has never seemed to be more vulnerable, more fragile and evanescent. Tolerance for regimes that abuse human rights is ebbing fast, while the expectations of rapid political change seem increasingly believable. Iran won't change overnight. But the Pohl visit will reaffirm that the world cares deeply about that ancient and important nation, that it expects Iran to behave in accordance with international human-rights instruments, and that, like the East bloc regimes, the days of its repressions are numbered.