Whom to talk to in Iran?

With so-so news coming out of Tehran from the UN’s chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed El Baradei (Iran’s not cooperating very well, but nuclear progress is slowing anyway), Chris Hitchens tells Obama to take his case directly to the Iranian people (though the former may or may not have more pressing issues to deal with in Beirut). Roger Cohen says the Ayatollah’s the one to focus attention on. The two propositions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Acknowledging the Ayatollah as the one truly in charge of Iran’s nuclear program is obviously a prerequisite for an effective non-proliferation policy (even if it was somehwat odd, as Michael Crowley notes, that El Baradei’s remark that he was “quite impressed” with the Ayatollah’s grasp of the nuclear issue directly followed the disapproval he expressed with Iranian intransigence). Not only does this step identify the interlocutor actually pulling the strings, but it refrains from fanning the bluster of extremists like Iran’s bellicose President Ahmadinejad.

As for communicating with the Iranian people, addressing them in public fora, as Obama in fact already has, is all well and good, but its importance is really more symbolic than anything else. The key for America and other Western nations is not to elbow their way too aggressively into Iranian society and thus be perceived as meddlers by those on the fence about the “Great Satan.” Ham-handed efforts to fund Iranian dissident groups, as the United States has an extremely counter-productive habit of doing, will not be as effective as letting ordinary Iranians tire of antagonistic leaders like Ahmadinejad without America exacerbating the situation.

(image from flickr user jeffq under a Creative Commons license)