Adrian Hamilton: We can support the protests – but we must not interfere

If Iwere to offer my advice, it would be to prepare for a full recount in Iran
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So what does the outside world do about the democratic outbursts in Iran? If we are true to our own principles, of course, we should come out in favour of the reformers. Free speech, liberty of assembly, votes for all are what we believe in. It is only patronising to hold back on expressing our support on the grounds that it is imposing our values on others and that other countries have different cultures.

The Iranians have every right to tell us (and they have – President Ahmadinejad was at it again in his visit to Russia on Tuesday) that our society is a broken one and that we are being entirely hypocritical instructing them what to do with demonstrators when the G20 has shown just how brutally we suppress protesters here. So do we the other way round. In a global world, every country's politics is everyone's business.

And yet, as the Iranian crisis has unfurled itself, one has grown increasingly unhappy with the way Western comment and foreign coverage has viewed events through its own narrow lens. The media has wanted a simple story of an oppressed people, denied their democratic rights through a fraudulent election, and brutally suppressed when they voiced their protests.

The "facts" have been readily found to "prove" the election was stolen: that it was announced before the results could have been counted, that the opposition leader was told he had won, and so on. And, once the demonstrations started, the rumour mill worked overtime to show that the demonstrators were intent not just on reform but an overthrow of the whole rule of the mullahs.

Now here is where caution, and a dose of old-fashioned journalistic care, needs to be exercised. Just because we may wish something does not mean we can will it. Take the situation in Iran today. Calling the election results a steal blinds us to the genuine popularity of President Ahmadinejad and the possibility that he did in fact win the election. Categorising the riots as a revolution against the regime ignores the point that the grievances of many of the protesters seem to be economic rather than political.

Like most such popular movements, the reformist grouping is a broad church of business people suffering from the high inflation and trade restrictions of the last years, students who want social as much as structural change to allow them more freedom, and women who want a greater say in their lives but fear political instability as much as the regime. Iranians are an intensely patriotic people and, for better or worse, the figure of the Supreme Ruler does appear to constitute a symbol of national unity.

Much the same could be said of a host of other reform movements in Central Asia, the Caucusus and indeed large parts of Africa. Protesters want change but they don't necessarily want a national cataclysm.

Now we know from the revolutions of the past century, from Russia onwards, that what may start as a minority cry for greater freedom can end up as a violent movement for total political change. The majority for moderation can be sidelined by tightly organised radical groups, as in the Russia of 1918, or it can be pushed to extremes by the violence shown by the authorities, as indeed was partly the case with the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

In Iran, there do not seem to be the professional cadres, backed from without or within, to take control of the movement, though the official press accuses the CIA of dastardly plots and Iran has an especially unpleasant Western-backed terrorist group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, operating within. The peculiarity of the demonstrations so far is that they seem virtually leaderless.

But it is perfectly possible that the regime could make things worse by clamping down too hard, although it appears to be conscious of that danger. The Basiji, the thuggish volunteer force that polices morals in every locality, has the capacity to wreck everything in its enthusiasm for the fight, given half a chance.

If I was to take a guess, it would be that the regime will play this long in the hope of gaining acceptance of President Ahmadinejad while offering the comfort of recounts in contested districts. If I were to offer my advice, it would be to be prepared for a full recount to take the sting out of rising revolt. The alternative would be soldiering on in simmering discontent with a President who lacks legitimacy, either within the country or outside it.

But I haven't been asked my advice, and nor would it be welcomed. It is up to the Iranians – the most sophisticated, intelligent people I know (and not just because of their love of poetry) – to determine their own future. We outside might hope, but it is not our place to interfere.