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What's the tipping point for revolution?

The similarities – and differences – between East Germany in 1989 and Iran in 2009 are striking.

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Despite the similarities, the outcomes in 1989 in Leipzig and 2009 in Tehran were very different. When the Leipzigers on the evening of Oct. 9 ignored their decades-old fear to face down the threat of massed security forces armed with live ammunition and orders to suppress the "counterrevolution," it was the hierarchy that blinked and pulled back the 8,000 police and backups minutes before the unauthorized march started. Four weeks later, this successful defiance nudged the more timid East Berliners to demonstrate; five weeks later, the 28-year-old Berlin Wall fell, without a single casualty. Shortly thereafter, street protesters in Prague, Czechoslovakia; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Timisoara, Romania; ousted their own Communist bosses and gave the death blow to Moscow's external empire. Within less than a year, West and East Germany were reunited. Within two years, the Soviet Union imploded.

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By contrast, last month close to a million Iranian demonstrators failed even to pry open the factional fault lines in the ayatollahs' hierarchy and thus expand political participation. Far from chaining the basij militia, the establishment sicced it on the crowds. At least 20 people were killed, hundreds more arrested.

Part of the explanation for this dichotomy can be found in the largest single difference between Leipzig and Tehran: the contexts of 1989 in Europe and 2009 in the Middle East. In 1989 the reforming head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, had made it clear to his East Berlin dependant, Erich Honecker, that he would not again send Soviet tanks into Berlin to prop him up (as Mr. Gorbachev's predecessor had done for Mr. Honecker's predecessor 36 years earlier).

In 2009, however, Iran's Guardian Council was not answerable to any outsider, nor did it face the kind of existential threat it had come under in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The council sees Iran as a rising power, one well on the way to restoring its rightful historical hegemony in the region. It chose to lose its electoral legitimacy rather than share power with the street.

Or at least that might be the provisional judgment of both historian and journalist at this point.

And yet it's instructive that the best specialists had no clue beforehand that the East Germans, of all acquiescent people, would erupt in 1989. Or that Iran's vibrant civil society would erupt as soon as this summer over abstract electoral fraud.

Perhaps the moral here is that the only honest answer to the nagging questions about what constitutes a revolutionary tipping point is this: You never really know until after it has already happened.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of "Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification."