SINGAPORE − When the ongoing turmoil surrounding the Iranian elections finally ends, the West is likely to walk away with a simple black and white judgment: the bad guys won. Of course, the West did the right thing by supporting the good guys, the street demonstrators. Hence, the West need not bear any responsibility for the outcome.
The tragedy of such thinking is that it does not allow for any moral and political complexity or nuance, yet that is exactly what will be needed if the many problems surrounding Iran are to be resolved. Moreover, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remaining as Iran’s president, the West will once again resort to its usual method of dealing with unfriendly regimes: impose more sanctions. But this would lead to an even greater tragedy.
The only clear lesson to emerge from Iran’s disputed presidential election is that the country has a vibrant and indeed dynamic civil society. Many brave Iranians were prepared to risk their lives to defend their beliefs. Their ability to do so confirms that Iran is not a closed totalitarian state like North Korea. Despite many years of rule by a theocratic establishment (or perhaps because of it), Iranian minds remain open and engaged.
So there is real hope that Iran can change, modernize, and open up as the rest of Asia has. Indeed, the only viable long-term strategy to adopt, therefore, is to stop trying to isolate Iran and instead nudge Iranians into engaging more with modern Asia.