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Friedman: Casting question for Iran's president: A wolf, a sheep or what?

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? North Korea built a small nuclear arsenal for two reasons: to protect that regime from threats from the outside and from threats from the inside. That is, 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 program keeps its people down - on a permanent low-calorie diet of both food and information. It's a foxy survival strategy for a crazy regime: a nuclear iron fist that keeps the world at bay with one hand and its own people isolated and weak with the other - all the while North Korea's leaders gorge on imported fast cars and fast food.

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. These hard-liners never want to see a U.S. embassy in Tehran.

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