As the Obama administration spearheads an aggressive public relations effort to sell the Iran deal, I've been trying to suture half of myself to the other half. I am Iranian-American. I am the hyphen caught between two homelands that hate each other.
Carl Jung says the "shadow" is that part of our personality we reject out of fear, or ignorance or shame. For the past 35 years, I have taken my shadow -- my Iranian heritage, that aspect of myself which has incurred judgment from the world -- and inverted it. My shadow is my skin. I advertise who I am. "Hey, it's your favorite Iranian" is how I often answer the phone -- or occasionally, "hey, it's your favorite Islamic terrorist." An invitation to the party could say, "Get bombed with your favorite Iranian." And if you were my paramour and threatened to leave, I'd take you hostage.
As a self-appointed goodwill ambassador of a rogue country, I figure Jung was onto something. He says the way to heal ourselves is by integrating our shadow. "To do this, we are obliged to struggle with evil, confront the shadow, to integrate the devil."
These days, it doesn't get any more devilish than the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil. Thirty-five years after a revolution which foisted Islamic fundamentalism on an unready world, we castigate and condemn Iran for its apparent fundamentalism, its sexism and suppression of women and gays, its stubborn refusal to listen to logic or play by the rules, and its grab for nuclear power--not recognizing that these aren't exactly issues we have put to bed in America. If we all have a shadow, Iran is America's. It represents everything we fear and have not yet reconciled within our own country.
In 1979, a few days before he was taken hostage in Tehran, Chargé d'Affaires Bruce Laingen penned a strategy memo on how to negotiate with the new Iranian regime -- starting with a few cultural observations:
"Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism," he writes. "Its antecedents lie in the long Iranian history of instability and insecurity which put a premium on self-preservation. The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own..."
Overriding egotism? Interestingly, these are the exact same accusations the world now hurls at America. Are you with us or are you against us? That's our foreign policy. Iran and American are two of the most ethnocentric countries on the face of this earth -- perceiving the world through their own unique lens. Later in the telex, Laingen chastises Iranians for their lack of trust, and you begin to understand why this might be true. Imagine you're Iranian. Look the left. There's Afghanistan occupied by America. To the right, American-occupied Iraq in ruins. Looking to history, a 1953 coup led by the CIA to destabilize Iran's government. Would you trust America if you were Iran?
Let's not forget that when Iran did try and engage with America over the nuclear issue a decade ago, they were told by the Bush administration, "We don't negotiate with Evil." These days both Washington and Hollywood love casting Iran as The Bad Guy. Movies and TV shows are full of Iranian spies, terrorists, and angry mullahs. We project our shadow onto our enemies, onto screens big and small.
But unlike, say North Korea, the other Axis of Evil, whose one-note foreign policy never changes, Iran and America are countries that respond to and mirror each other. We both have presidents working towards peace, while secondary power grabs by our Senate and their Revolutionary Guards sabotage that goal. Iran has elections and a dynamic population. For 35 years, we have fought over nukes, hostages, drones, downed civilian airliners, computer sabotage, espionage, but we have never stopped responding to one another. It's like that weird dynamic siblings have. It might be dysfunctional but it is a relationship. Which means that we can do what parties to a relationship do: argue bitterly, equivocate, judge, defend, and finally make up -- just as we did with Britain, Germany and Japan. It's no accident that our closest allies were once bitter enemies.
Two decades after being held hostage for 444 days, Mr. Laingen wrote,
The United States and Iran must talk. Not with the mutually negative public rhetoric that for the 27 years since the 1979 hostage crisis has eroded the trust needed for any diplomatic exchange; ... but frontally and frankly as responsible powers with shared interests in a critically important part of the world. The absence of dialogue has made no sense on any count -- strategic, human, historic, political, cultural.
Or psychological. If Iran is America's shadow, it holds the key to our evolution through the buttons it pushes in us. So what kind of country do we want to be? One that extends an olive branch or levels a gun? For me, being Iranian-American is like being a child of international divorce. For 35 years, I've watched my mother and fatherlands demonize one another. But let me tell you what all children of divorce know: we never stop hoping our parents will get back together.
CYRUS M. COPELAND is an Iranian-American author. Off the Radar: A Father's Secret, A Mother's Heroism, and A Son's Quest (Penguin/Blue Rider) recounts his father's imprisonment and trial as a CIA agent. Cyrus's mother became the first female lawyer in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and defended his father before the revolutionary courts. Thirty-five years later, Cyrus embarked on a quest to discover if the charges against his father were true. Cyrus lives in New York City -- and in the digital domain: firstname.lastname@example.org