The Imitation Game: US-Iran Relations

We now have an agreement with Iran to restrain their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but just how good a deal is it? President Obama, congress, presidential contenders, and political commentators are debating that right now. Sojourners offers clear-eyed support for the deal as “better than the alternatives” and clearly better than military strikes which “would be, at best, premature, as well as highly unpredictable and morally irresponsible in creating yet another U.S. war with a Muslim country.”

Even so, Sojourner’s President Jim Wallis has written that he has no doubt that Iran is “an enemy of America, an enemy of Israel, and an enemy of peace.” But as a Christian, he also believes that “you need to find ways to make peace with your enemies.” This deal, for Jim Wallis anyway, seems to be a way to do that. But how do you make peace with a nation that is not just our enemy, but an enemy of peace itself?

Just what is an enemy? We don’t often ask that question because we think the answer is obvious: enemies are bad guys who hate us for no good reason. An enemy is so unlike us that we compare ourselves to them in terms of opposites: rational/ irrational, nonviolent/ violent, law abiding/ criminal, and just/ unjust. We believe that we and our enemy have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps a shared desire to defeat the other.

The Terrible Twos: A Parable

But I think that way of thinking about enemies is just plain wrong. The cause of the mistake is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology, specifically the psychology of desire. Our enemies are not our opposites; they are the mirror image of our desires. In this way, “an enemy” is not someone separate and distinct from us, rather they are a product of our relationship with them. The best way I know of illustrating this is with a story about desire in my 2-year-old granddaughter, Grace.

Grace is at that “terrible” age when her desires often seem at odds with the adults around her. But mostly she’s not as terrible as just annoying. Like when she won’t eat her own food but devours what’s on her mom’s plate or when she wants to “help” fold the clothes. Like all terrible twos, Grace is an imitator on steroids. Whatever we do, that’s what she wants to do, too. Which is how she learns to do things, of course. Grace is learning how to be a grown-up by imitating grown-ups. Which is natural and good, not terrible at all.

The terrible kicks in when Grace seems to be determined to do the opposite of what we want. For example, when we try to do something we think she needs help with, like pour her milk, she screams, which is her wordless version of, “You’re not the boss of me!” If we insist on pouring the milk for her, it leads to the dreaded power struggle. Hey, what parent hasn’t gotten into a tug of war over pouring milk or bedtime or what to wear to school, and lost?! Our kids seem determined to defy us just for the sport of it and it’s hard not to feel that our sweet two-year-old has turned into a demon child.

But here’s the catch: Grace’s defiance is also an act of imitation except that she’s imitating something we want to keep sole possession of: the power to decide things for ourselves. Get it? When mom displays her own ability to make decisions and impose her will on Grace, Grace will have none of it. She wants to be just like mommy in everything, including being the boss of herself! In fact, the more we refuse to share the privilege of being her boss, the more desirable it becomes to her. We would never call Grace our enemy, but boy oh boy, it sure does feel like it sometimes!

The Psychology of Desire

This is just basic desire psychology. The thing we won’t share is the thing we most value and that will provoke desire in others. So what does this have to do with Iran, the so-called enemy of the U.S.? Iran may be our enemy, but her desire for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a perfect imitation of our own. I am not discounting the dangers to U.S. security if nuclear weapons get into the wrong hands. No hands could be more wrong than those of an enemy, especially one that is also an “enemy of peace”. But the U.S. may risk becoming an enemy of peace as well when it blames others for desires they learned from us.

Let me be clear: Iran is no more a child than we are. We are equals, mirror images of each other’s desires for nuclear weapons and global respect. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear policy, but I do know that conflict begins with shared desires. Ironically, so does friendship. The difference between enemies and friends is that friends enjoying sharing desires and enemies deny it’s happening. Remember, if Iran refuses to relinquish their desire for nuclear weapons, it’s not defiance; it’s imitation. And yet it may be easier than we think to follow Jim Wallis’ advice to find a way to make peace with this particular enemy. The path is obvious and available to us: we can renounce our desire for a nuclear arsenal. That’s a desire worth sharing and enjoying with friends.

 

Image: Copyright: David Carillet via 123rf.com

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