We must allow the people of Iran to bring about the change they want to see

The Obama administration and the British government should be praised for the restraint they have sh

Was the Iranian presidential election rigged? We may never know for sure. On page 29, we list some of the signs which suggest that it was indeed “stolen”. These include various voting irregularities, the suspiciously rapid announcement of results favouring the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the president’s surprise defeat of his opponents, even in their own home towns.

However, the debate over the fairness or otherwise of the election has been overtaken by the turbulent events of recent days. Opposition rallies protesting against the “victory” of Ahmadinejad have produced some of the biggest crowds seen on the streets of the capital, Tehran, since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. In several cases, the protests have ended in deadly gunfire. So far, at least seven demonstrators are reported to have been killed in violent clashes with the security services. That number may increase in the coming days as the angry crowds refuse to leave the streets.

Why should all this matter to us? Because Iran matters – and democracy matters.

Iran is an ancient nation, widely believed to be one of the cradles of civilisation. The most populous country in the Middle East, it holds the world’s second-largest reserves of natural gas and the third-largest oil reserves, and deploys its wealth to sponsor and support Hamas and Hezbollah.

Since the 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini-inspired Islamic Revolution against the shah, Iran has been a bitter opponent of the United States in the Middle East. The unresolved tensions between the two nations are a microcosm of the poor relations between the west and the wider Muslim world.

So we ought to be under no illusion: the political future of the Islamic Republic affects us all. As revealed in an exclusive essay by David Patrikarakos starting on page 26, Iran’s determined pursuit of an independent nuclear capacity, in defiance of international opinion, is the main reason why so many in the west, and in Israel, are so fearful of a second-term presidency for Ahmadinejad. It is this issue, above all others, that must be resolved if another war in the Middle East is to be avoided.

Yet this is not simply about geopolitics or international diplomacy. This magazine has a long and proud tradition of supporting democracy, and opposing theocracy, across the world.

The millions clad in signature green wristbands and ribbons, who have poured on to the streets in support of the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, risking their lives in the process, are fighting for their voices to be heard and their votes to be counted in a part of the world where free elections are rare.

For democrats, there are no sides to this. There is only the side of freedom and the open society, the side that favours the people over the politicians, the masses over the mullahs, the democrats over the theocrats.

However, western governments have to be very careful. There is a long history of the United States and its allies, especially Britain, interfering in the internal politics of Middle Eastern nations. Indeed, in his acclaimed recent speech in Cairo, Barack Obama became the first sitting president of the United States to concede publicly to the US role in the 1953 coup d’état against the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Muhammed Mossadeq.

So, for the United States and its allies to come out in open support of these spontaneous demonstrations – as the Bush administration did so recklessly in 2003, forcing reformist leaders and opposition politicians to shun protesters for fear of being denounced as traitors – would be fatal for Mousavi and the current Iranian opposition.

In fact, the Obama administration and the British government should be praised for the restraint they have shown and for not giving the impression of meddling. It is vitally important, as Iranian reformers themselves argue, for western powers to do nothing and to say even less. It is up to the people of Iran, the architects of an indigenous “Green Revolution”, to force reform on their own regime.

This is a critically important moment for the Middle East, and for the world: having at least attempted to rig the elections, and having cracked down on the ensuing protests so violently, the Iranian regime stands on the edge of a political abyss.

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