Say what you want about Iran - at least it's not North Korea. There is a world of difference between a totalitarian state ruled by a demigod, where the merest blush of opposition is unimaginable, and an authoritarian regime, rooted in religious fanaticism, in which the members of the ruling clique publicly duke it out. But what if those distinctions become less meaningful as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his protÃ©gÃ© President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to consolidate power while their regime takes its final steps toward constructing a nuclear weapon? This week saw Bill Clinton parleying with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. In return for the visit - Pyongyang insisted on the former US president, husband of the current secretary of state, as emissary - the North Koreans released two American journalists they were holding hostage. With this US concession in the bank, Kim may now be willing to return to "six-party" talks - if Washington relaxes existing sanctions and drops its demand that North Korea first give up its nuclear weapons program. MEANWHILE, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Ahmadinejad is the true face of the Iranian regime directed by Khamenei. Having stolen the anyway rigged June 12 election, the two leaders don't seem bothered that their political adversaries boycotted Ahmadinejad's second-term swearing-in ceremony. These dissidents - former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, for instance - are mostly embittered reactionaries, not liberal reformers. Now, a new intramural dispute is raging over whom Ahmadinejad will appoint as his senior vice-president (and possible successor). On the sidelines, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate - no flaming liberal himself - is left to post his criticisms on the Internet. According to The New York Times, Ahmadinejad is in firm control. He's backed by Khamenei, parliament and the Revolutionary Guards, and enjoys the acquiescence of influential religious figures. Indeed, anyone who watched Khamenei as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ahmadinejad throughout the inauguration ceremony and saw the men warmly embracing afterward would not delude themselves into thinking that the two are not in lock-step. AS IF to bookend events in Iran and North Korea, this week marks the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Even if Iranian elites remain divided over Ahmadinejad, this in no way diminishes the dangers represented by the country's nuclear program. If anything, Khamenei may have an incentive to accelerate the project to rally the nation and underscore the prowess of his leadership. But what if the cost of pursuing the bomb undermined his position? As it is, many educated Iranians have lost faith in the legitimacy of their political system because of the election fiasco. Inflation hovers at 26 percent; real unemployment is probably 40%. The world's second-largest oil-producer has to import 40% of its gasoline. Now more than ever, the country desperately needs international investment. The bad news is that it's getting it. China announced this week an investment of $3 billion-$6b. in Iran's oil sector. Pakistan announced freight train service between the two countries. And an unnamed European company will reportedly invest $4 billion in Iran's Lavan gas field. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that engagement with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is still on the table. The administration set a September deadline for the Iranians to start talking. Teheran's apologists say the time limit resulted from Zionist pressure and isn't based on any objective threat. Others imply that it's too late to talk - or to level draconian sanctions. London's Times reported this week that "Iran has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from... Khamenei, to produce its first bomb." Either way, the current Iranian leadership is not interested in substantive negotiations. YET THE stakes are far too high to give up. Iran is not North Korea. The Obama administration should lead the civilized world in refusing to recognize the Ahmadinejad regime. It should offer to cooperate with any Iranian leadership that abandons nuclear weapons, ends support for terrorism, and frees political prisoners. Iran is the lynch-pin to President Barack Obama's hopes for a world that is free of nuclear weapons. Conversely, an Iranian nuclear bomb would unleash a new atomic arms race in the already volatile Middle East.