Hopes of a Persian China

Iran should reform its nuclear policy to establish a working relationship with the West

Written by Thomas L. Friedman | Published: October 6, 2013 12:33 am

Iran should reform its nuclear policy to establish a working relationship with the West

FOR anyone who enjoys a good metaphor,Iranian President Hassan 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 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?

North Korea’s leadership believes that nuclear weapons make it impervious to regime change from abroad and that the intern­a­t­ional isolation that has accomp­anied North Korea’s nuclear wea­pons programme keeps its people down. Iran’s leadership also 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 ve­ry global trends that produce things like the 2009 Green Revolution.

But Iran is not North Korea. It can’t keep its people isolated indefinitely. 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. Because they are not North Kor­­ea,the sanctions are now th­re­atening them with disc­o­ntent from the inside. But how much of their “nuclear insura­n­ce” are they ready to give up? 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. “We’ve been trying for so long to use control dynamics to contain Iran that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we actually want the Iranians — specifically the ruling elites — to change their behaviour,” said Colonel Mark Mykleby,a retired Marine and co-author of “A National Strategic Narrative” for the US joint chiefs of staff. Added Nader Mousavizadeh,the Iranian-American co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners and a former top aide to UN Secretary General Kofi An­nan: “If we are prudent en­ough,strategic enough,and sufficiently disabused of our ability to remake countries in our own image,then we begin to see Iran as the potential China of the Middle East — with all the promise that holds,and all the challenges we know from just how hard the path with China’s been since Nixon’s trip.”

The process of getting there would be fitful,and surely ugly at times,but 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 centres of pow­er,” noted Mousavizadeh. No,this is not ideal. “In a perfect world,we’d see a much speedier transition to a genuinely free society. But if a détente with the West can deny [Iran’s regime the excuse of foreign enemies and foreign entanglements,Iran may then see its path to legitimacy also through reform… Just like China.”

China’s leaders are not Boy Scouts either. Yet we’ve found a stable,mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing as “frenemies.” I remain a sceptic 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 weaponisation of Iran’s nuclear programme. 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.

From ‘The New York Times’

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