For anyone who enjoys a good metaphor, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations has been a field day for sheep and wolves. Rouhani has been dubbed both a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “sheep in wolf’s clothing” and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel called Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “a wolf in wolf’s clothing.”
The important question, though, is not who Rouhani is but what kind of country Iran’s regime wants it to be in the 21st century and what role nuclear power will play in shaping that identity. Seen from that perspective, there’s only one relevant question: Is Iran content to be a big North Korea or does it aspire to be a Persian China?
Iran’s leadership sees a nuclear weapon as potential insurance against regime change from abroad, and surely some in Iran’s leadership, namely the Revolutionary Guards, benefit from the sanctions at home. The more isolated Iran is, the less economic competition the Guards have for their vast network of industrial enterprises, the more valuable are their sanctions-busting smuggling ports and the more isolated Iran’s people are from the global trends that produce things like the 2009 Green Revolution. These hard-liners never want to see a U.S. embassy in Tehran.
But Iran is not North Korea. It’s a great civilization, with great human talent. It can’t keep its people isolated indefinitely. In theory, Iran’s regime does not have to keep the world out and its people down for Iran to be powerful. But do Iran’s leaders accept that theory? Some do. The decision to re-enter negotiations is a clear signal that crucial players there do not think the status quo — crushing sanctions — is viable for them anymore. The sanctions are now threatening them with discontent from the inside. But how much of their “nuclear insurance” are they ready to give up to be free of sanctions? Are they ready to sacrifice a single powerful weapon to become again a powerful country — to be more like a China, a half-friend, half-enemy, half-trading partner, half-geo-political rival to America, rather than a full-time opponent?
This is what we have to test.
The process of getting there would be fitful, and surely ugly at times, but, if done properly, it could lead to Iran’s gradual reintegration into the world economy, the empowerment of its educated, young middle class, “and the emergence in Iran of multiple centers of power, similar to that undergone by the Communist Party in Beijing over the past 30 years,” noted Nader Mousavizadeh, the Iranian-American co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners and a former top aide to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
China’s leaders are not Boy Scouts either. Yet we’ve found a stable, mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing as “frenemies.” I remain a skeptic that Iran’s regime can generate the internal consensus to make a similar transition. But then few thought China could either. Secretary of State John Kerry has the right attitude: No lifting of sanctions for anything less than the airtight closure to any possible weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program. That’s the only deal worth having, and the only way Iran will decide if it really is a China in Persian clothing — or something like that.