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 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 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 hardliners never want to see an American 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.

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 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-geopolitical 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 Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine and co-author of A National Strategic Narrative for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’m all about being tough as nails on them, and I sure don’t trust them, but I also believe we need to give them the option to change their behaviour."

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."

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 weaponization 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.


Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist. Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at