Iran should reform its nuclear policy to establish a working relationship with the West
FOR anyone who enjoys a good metaphor,Iranian President Hassan Rouhanis visit to the United Nations has been a field day for sheep and wolves. Rouhani has been dubbed both a wolf in sheeps clothing and a sheep in wolfs clothing and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel called Irans previous president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,a wolf in wolfs clothing. The important question,though,is not who Rouhani is but what kind of country Irans regime wants it to be in the 21st century and what role nuclear power will play in shaping that identity. Seen from that perspective,theres only one relevant question: Is Iran content to be a big North Korea or does it aspire to be a Persian China?
North Koreas leadership believes that nuclear weapons make it impervious to regime change from abroad and that the international isolation that has accompanied North Koreas nuclear weapons programme keeps its people down. Irans leadership also sees a nuclear weapon as potential insurance against regime change from abroad,and surely some in Irans 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 Irans people are from the very global trends that produce things like the 2009 Green Revolution.
But Iran is not North Korea. It cant 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. Weve been trying for so long to use control dynamics to contain Iran that weve 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 Chinas been since Nixons trip.
The process of getting there would be fitful,and surely ugly at times,but it could lead to Irans 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,wed see a much speedier transition to a genuinely free society. But if a détente with the West can deny [Irans regime the excuse of foreign enemies and foreign entanglements,Iran may then see its path to legitimacy also through reform… Just like China.
Chinas leaders are not Boy Scouts either. Yet weve found a stable,mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing as frenemies. I remain a sceptic that Irans 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 Irans nuclear programme. Thats 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.
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