IF I CAN ADD one more small voice to the extravagant psychodrama of Iran, I would suggest, sotto voce , a metaphor from human experience for this dangerous time in our foreign relations.

These two nations, the United States and Iran, are like parent and child, caught in that volatile transition called adolescence when the child demands the rights of an independent adult. Adolescence is, among other things, a question of power. The child rebels against domination; parents respond with righteous fury at the child's rank ingratitude.

Most children, most parents work it out eventually, with considerable pain and error. If families rigidly insist on the old power relationship, things fly apart.

It doubtless sounds patronizing to speak of the United States and Iran in terms of parent-child conflict. But the essence of colonialism is the parent-child relationship -- domination and dependence -- and the United States has been a neo-colonial power for the past generation.

Iran is "acting out," as the school counselors would say. And Americans collectively are full of righteous fury, itching to smack this upstart child and put him in his place. I must say that I share those emotions myself. The unifying element of the hostage outrage is that, for the first time in a long time in world affairs, we are unquestionably the injured party. Even the Commie governments concede that. Like a lot of other Americans, I would like to grab one of those cocky Iranian students who are screaming and demonstrating in the streets and shove a little of my native pride down his throat. As an American, it plain makes me mad. As a parent, I recognize those emotions.

So, as I see it, these two very different nations are locked in a dangerous struggle in which the most menacing element is the possibility that either side will succumb to its own illusion of power. The ayatollah is acting out the ultimate Third World fantasy of independence from the wicked West. This is an impossible dream in today's interdependent global marketplace and, if he persists, his people face certain economic ruin. Iran is not self-sufficient. Period.

American belligerence, on the other hand, is fixed on another illusion -- the colonialist illusion that military power can restore our dominion over other nations. This is very much like the father who tries to spank a 13-year-old, believing that a little violence will terminate these rebellious outbursts.

A very dangerous illusion, too. If you listen to the war claque of Washington, that permanent chorus of politicians and columnists who always call for military intervention in the face of global change, those bellicose voices presume that the old power relationships can be reestablished with a flight of F15s or a landing of the 82nd Airborne. These are generally the same people who urged us into the big muddy of Indochina and who, in recent years, recommended American engagement in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Zaire, even Nicaragua. No doubt military action would make them feel better about America, though, needless to say, none of them plans to be anywhere near the shooting.

Okay, we could blow up Iran's resources. America has the equipment, and no one has the ability to stop us. One certain consequence would be a world depression, if not world war, as other Third World countries closed ranks and denied their oil to the West. Or we could send in the troops and occupy that nation for the duration. That suggestion reminds me of what Gen. Westmoreland, the failed commander in Vietnam, said when asked about sending U.S. troops to the conflict in Zaire: "I know how to get them in. But I don't know how to get them out."

This is really a question of what's practical, not a moral argument. As in family disputes, it is sometimes unproductive to sort out the right and wrong with great precision, because both sides are partly wrong, partly right.

One continuing irony of the Cold War is that the cold warriors who preach pragmatism are much more likely to invoke moralistic arguments than their critics. The time has come to put aside that theology and inquire with clear eyes how the world really looks and how we look to the world.

The United States government -- without consulting its citizens in any way -- assumed the neo-colonial franchise in Iran in 1953 when the CIA put the shah in power. The out-front explanation for this was our fear of Communist conquest, but everyone now understands that our strategic and economic motives -- especially access to cheap, abundant oil -- were also important and not very different from the original aims that led the French and British to muck around the Middle East with their colonial armies.

So the United States, notwithstanding the obvious contradiction in values, took on the colonialist burden for a generation of foreign policy, not only in Iran but elsewhere. In a practical sense, it worked. We built an extraordinary prosperity and a vast network of trade on the premise of cheap oil. Every American, including me, enjoyed the benefits of having a shah, whether we liked him or not.

But, as a practical matter, the shah ended his usefulness to us in 1973 when he led his OPEC brethren to make the landmark leap in oil prices, actually betraying his American sponsors. If Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were as ruthlessly pragmatic as they pretend, they would have had the CIA bump off the shah, then and there.

Instead, they helped create a patch-up system called "recycling," in which we sent many bucks to the shah for his oil and he sent them back to buy warplanes and other expensive trinkets. Some had the courage to call this madness and, indeed, they were right. The scary point is that the United States is mimicking this same pattern, in other nations, albeit less grossly than with Iran. A mad policy sooner or later leads to mad results.

As an American, I would argue that our version of neo-colonialism in Iran and elsewhere was much more benign and well-intentioned than the brutish British and French colonialists who preceded us.

But this question of degree hardly matters in the parent-child transition. Even if the shah had not tortured his citizens and looted their treasury, the heart of the grievance is that he was our shah, imposed on Iran by our power and sustained by our power.

Now the question is: Can the world advance to more "mature" relationships among nations, the way grown-up children and grown-up parents learn to depend upon one another without being dependent? The war claque wants us to believe that colonial domination is the permanent condition of mankind, that we could restore it if only we are not cowards. My own sense of history tells me that deeper courage today lies in confronting new realities and seeking new relationships.

That is why I perceive considerable courage in Jimmy Carter's foreign policy despite the lapses and contradictions. His perspective is fundamentally different from his predecessors because he sees in the world this complicated web of human aspirations essentially in harmony with our own. He recognizes that we are in a period of terrible conflicts, of post-colonialism, if you will, but he does not pretend that we can return to an era of military domination.

Carter's pursuit of "mature" relationships has been studded with frustrations and inconsistencies, which is not surprising when you consider the violent swirl of old resentments and misunderstandings. This period of history, even if it progresses successfully to post-colonialism, will be a time of crisis and interruption and threatening clouds. As any thoughtful parent knows, adolescence ain't easy.

But, meanwhile, the president's course is complicated by treacherous domestic politics. At every turn of a new crisis, the war claque picks up its spears and denounces his restraint as weakness, his wisdom as cowardice. The price we pay for this is the vast additional billions that Carter is pumping into our military machinery. This is protection money, pure and simple, paid to persuade political critics that Jimmy Carter is no sissy.

I admire Carter's secretary of state, too. Cyrus Vance, against all my half-baked prejudices, strikes me as one of the very few public men of his generation who actually learned something from Vietnam. For this, he is subjected to constant contempt, even ridicule, from the muscle men who want blood spilled for honor. Wars of honor can sometimes produce national disgrace, as Vance discovered in Indochina. When I read his speeches today, I think to myself, thank God, somebody in power understands that we are not living in 1948 or even 1960.

None of my rambling predicts how the hostage crisis will end.If Iran kills our people, we will surely take military action, and I will cheer along with everyone else. I am not against military action when it makes sense, any more than I am against parents punishing children when it makes sense. But, if this short-term crisis brings back an indiscriminate era of robust U.S. military adventure -- as I fear it might -- then America invites its own destruction.

Jimmy Carter, if anyone listened, said as much the other night:

". . . I don't see at all that our country has become weak. We are strong and we are getting stronger, not weaker. But if anybody thinks we can dominate other people with our strength, military or political strength or economic strength, they're wrong. That's not the purpose of our country."