Recent advances in the field of psychology, in addition to shedding light on our own behaviour as individuals, can also provide valuable clues as to what may be happening below the surface with regards to such things as conflicts between groups. Our awareness of the subtle, and perhaps more fundamental, aspects of the Iran-West conflict may be measurably heightened by our consideration of some of these new understandings.
We are fast learning that mental health and well-being (and the actions that arise from those states) depend highly upon certain emotional needs being met. It is being demonstrated that in addition to important physical needs of food, air water, and shelter, human beings need and require:
* attention (to give and receive)
* a sense of autonomy and control
* to be part of a wider community
* a sense of status within social groupings
* a sense of competence and achievement
* meaning and purpose
When enough of these emotional needs are unmet within a person or larger community, psychological disarray, suffering and conflict may result.
Iran’s political and diplomatic behaviour, posturing and rhetoric which is often characterized as “extreme” or “rogue” and is sometimes depicted as being intrinsic to Iranian culture, is more likely related to its needs as a nation being deprived than it is to some inherent evil. And western countries may be quite complicit in this situation.
The ongoing effort by the West to sanction and isolate Iran, as an uncreative standard operating procedure, may be a primary cause. In fact, it might be said with some degree of certainty that the reason for which tools such as sanctions exist is to deprive countries of their needs in order to exact punishment, or to force capitulation on an issue or range of issues.
Decades of Western hostility, suspicion, forced isolation from the global community, and a devaluing of all things Iranian, go completely against the grain of the needs listed above: security, the ability to exercise attention through official relations, autonomy, control, being part of a community, and enjoying a certain national status and the fruits of growth and achievement. The implications of this, as profound as they are on their own, are further bolstered by the fact, often unappreciated, that Iran is a historically and culturally rich nation with a deep sense of pride. It’s needs for recognition, respect, and status perhaps run even deeper than other nations.
How does this bear upon the conflict and on our perception and understanding of Iran as whole?
If Iranians, or others in a similar situation, cannot have their needs met through the usual avenues that modern nations and people do, they will try to fulfill them in other ways.
For instance, what the west takes to be actions that are purely hostile towards it, may in fact be alternate and/or misplaced avenues for Iran to pursue its needs:
- Iran’s continued revolutionary struggles, especially by its elites, against its “enemies” that include extreme rhetoric, action and political – may constitute an alternate form of pursuit of meaning and purpose, whose more appropriate forms are denied by sanctions and isolation
- The development of a nuclear program (either energy or weapons or both) is a pursuit of security, status, competence and achievement, again, where isolation and sanctions prevents Iran from attaining these goals in other areas
- Iran’s controversial relations to other groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria, North Korea can easily be understood in terms of its needs to share attention, have relations with others, and feel part of a larger community, since it is currently excluded in various ways from the community of nations
- Iran’s intentions to become a regional power in the Middle East – something construed as hostile and ill-intentioned – may be seen through the prism of Iran’s need to have a sense of autonomy and control denied to it by the wide range of economic and political strictures imposed by the world community
- Any one of these actions can be related to other unmet needs cited in the other examples.
A dialogue with Iran can be entered into to both understand these needs as well as to discuss such possible excesses.
What is the impact of all of this for our understanding of Iran?
These behaviours, seen as pure hostility and apart from their other motives, re-enforces and feeds back into our already skewed caricatures of Iran. Our responses further alienates Iran and produces more behaviours that we use strengthen our models. The cycle seems to have no end. Iran itself, or its leadership, may not be fully aware of the needs as described above and may be trying to compensate for those starved needs in excess.
The first step away from the precipice of the deadly violence which looms above this long-standing conflict, and towards more flexible policy options and improved relations between Iran and the West is for not only elites, but also regular citizens to learn and better understand why we see each other as we do, and how we might be able to bring our perception, even slightly more in line with what the reality might be.