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Myth of the Great Satan: A New Look at America's Relations with Iran

Myth of the Great Satan: A New Look at America's Relations with Iran

by Abbas Milani, Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order Staff

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This critical review of the history of America's relations with Iran shows how little of the two countries' long and complicated relationship is reflected in the foundational axioms of the "Great Satan" myth. The author explains why meaningful and equitable relations can begin only after the two nations have arrived at a common, critical, and accurate reading of the


This critical review of the history of America's relations with Iran shows how little of the two countries' long and complicated relationship is reflected in the foundational axioms of the "Great Satan" myth. The author explains why meaningful and equitable relations can begin only after the two nations have arrived at a common, critical, and accurate reading of the past.

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The Myth of the Great Satan

A New Look at America's Relations with Iran

By Abbas Milani

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1136-2


The Iranian Purgatory

The Many Paradoxes of U.S. Relations with Iran

... so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause
And in the upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' heads....


Two countries, "both alike in dignity," have been at odds for thirty years, fighting several proxy wars, sometimes even engaging in direct military confrontations. The clerical regime in Iran has always partially defined itself in terms of its opposition to the United States. The founder of the regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, used the Qor'anic moniker of the Great Satan to refer to America — as much a show of intimidated awe as of embittered animosity at what he imagined was America's mythic omnipotence. Today, not only the regime but its invariably self-serving narrative of U.S.-Iranian relations is facing challenges more serious than any in the past.

Iran is today in a state of political purgatory. It all began with the June 12, 2009, presidential election. Instead of accepting what was widely believed to be a victory by Mir Hossein Moussavi, the regime clumsily tried to steal what was an already rigged election. In a sense, every election in Iran is rigged. A vetting process now conducted by several agencies of the regime, including the twelve-member Guardian Council, ensures that in every Iranian election, no one unacceptable to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts can get on any ballot anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, on June 12, 2009, the regime felt it had no choice but to steal the surprisingly contested election. Some 80 percent of all eligible voters took part. The regime tried to use the high voter turn-out as an indication of its legitimacy, but the irrepressible discontent with the announced results led to the most profound crisis the regime has faced since its creation thirty years earlier.

As a result of this crisis, the status quo ante is dead but a more democratic future is yet to be born. The tyrannical triumvirate of Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and some leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — increasingly dependent on the military might of the IRGC and the street presence of the gangs of Basij (gangs-cum-militia who control every neighborhood and institution in Iran) — stole the election by declaring Ahmadinejad the winner. Though every indication is that the leadership had planned the electoral heist many months earlier, it was nevertheless caught by surprise by the popular resolve to challenge the regime and its electoral machinations. Since June 12, the triumvirate has used everything from imprisoning and executing opponents and gathering rented crowds for pro-regime demonstrations to creating a limp imitation of the infamous Moscow show trials of the 1930s to try to convince the still-defiant nation that Ahmadinejad actually won and that further resistance is futile. Adding insult to injury, the regime continues to humiliate the opposition by accusing it of being a dupe of the United States. The campaign to elect a reformist president and the resistance to the electoral heist have both been, in the regime's narrative, a "velvet revolution." All such revolutions are, in the regime's paranoid view of the world, masterminded by the "Great Satan."

Historians like Garton Ash cherished the emergence of Eastern Europe's velvet revolutions as a new moment in the history of political change, a new paradigm of revolution. However, the Islamic regime in Iran is portraying the popular upheaval there as nothing but the "machinations of American arrogance." Velvet revolutions have been characterized by their belief in non-violent, non-utopian and pragmatic populism, and by their rejection of the old paradigm of violent, utopian, class-based revolutions. The Iranian Green Movement has been, in its chief characteristics, a version of such a revolution.

Since the June 12 electoral crisis, the composition of power in the clerical regime has changed. The IRGC leadership has consolidated more and more economic, political, intelligence, and military power in its own hands. In the month of November 2009 alone it offered almost $20 billion in cash to buy two of Iran's biggest industrial conglomerates — the biggest auto-maker and the country's telecommunication corporation (which controls all the e-mails, mobile and landline phones, faxes, and Internet access in the country). Attempts by some members of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) to oppose these sales as abuses of laws requiring "privatization" have come to naught. The IRGC is now a state within a state. It has its own intelligence division and its own customs office. It owns and operates hundreds of companies in virtually every field of the economy — from agriculture and mining to banking and oil and gas pipeline construction.

Since the June presidential election, the IRGC has also begun to purge the Intelligence Ministry, replacing independent analysts with its own reliable members and officers. During the presidency of Mohamed Khatami (1997–2005), an attempt was made to "professionalize" the ministry and purge it of its rogue elements (including those who had masterminded the murder of a dozen of the country's top intellectuals). Today, however, those being purged are reportedly those who have refused to accept the theory that the people's resistance since June 12 was masterminded by the Great Satan and its Western allies.

Yet there are signs that many in the regime no longer believe the status quo to be tenable or desirable. A handful of powerful ayatollahs admonished the IRGC for its expanding role in the economy and politics. Some have conjured up Khomeini's last political will, wherein he forbade the IRGC to enter the realms of politics and the economy. Others are criticizing the ruling triumvirate for selling the country cheaply to the Russians and the Chinese, demanding to know what sets these countries apart from the United States and why Iran can have relations with them and not with the United States.

Today, the public row between Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khamenei may be the most telling example of such a leadership rift. But as early as fifteen years ago, Saeed Hajjarian, then a deputy minister of intelligence, concluded that changing the nature of politics in the country was the only way for the regime to survive. He is credited with masterminding the Khatami reform movement and with articulating the theory that the opposition must mobilize as large a movement as possible and use it to thwart Khamenei and his cohorts, to chip away at their absolutist power. While such rifts make the transition to democracy more possible, they render the work of U.S. policy makers more complicated. The ghost of Iran's increasingly assertive democrats now haunts every negotiation. Khamenei and his allies have made several attempts to heal these open rifts within the ranks of the regime and, in their own words, "bring back to the fold" leaders of the Green Movement and even Rafsanjani. But their attempts have so far been for naught.

In the brutal attempts to suppress the people's peaceful demonstrations, units of Basij have played a crucial role. Called Lebas Chaksi or "civilians," they are invariably the most vicious in beating unarmed men, women, and even children. There were rumors of tensions between units of Basij and the police, who more than once sided with the people. It remains to be seen whether the regime's attempt to bribe the Basij — through billions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts and through members' inclusion in the ranks of the regular units of the IRGC — will work, and whether the regime can continue to rely on members as the shock troops needed to frighten millions of peaceful demonstrators. In function and social status, the Basij today resembles the Communist League in the waning days of the Soviet Union. It no longer attracts true ideologues and believers but primarily pragmatists and opportunists. A large number of Basij members seem to have joined the organization only to enjoy the many benefits that come with membership, from easier access to government handouts and jobs to entrance to college for their children and even lucrative management positions. How many belong to this category of the purely pragmatically pious, or even the social climbers, and how long they will remain loyal to a shaky triumvirate remains to be seen. It will be key to the regime's ultimate ability to withstand further challenges to its authoritarianism.

The triumvirate that masterminded the electoral coup in June had been planning for months for the possibility of resistance to its plans. First came a realignment of the IRGC. Instead of having a centralized command, it was broken into thirty-one units: one for each province, two for Tehran. Units of Basij, hitherto autonomous, were placed under the direct command of IRGC units. It was announced that, henceforth, defending against the "domestic threat" and the "soft power" of America and the West would be the main responsibility of the IRGC. After June 12, fighting the "color revolution" — or, more accurately, the democratic will of the people — became the main responsibility of the IRGC and its auxiliaries in the Basij. Basij units became the de facto infantry of the IRGC.

These changes have even affected the IRGC's command structure. Many commanders have been moved and reassigned in the last twelve months. The political dynamics of these changes are not altogether clear. Are they intended to further consolidate Khamenei's hold over the IRGC or are they the result of the IRGC's increased power and independence? Were the many new appointments simply the consequence of factional jockeying in the ranks of the IRGC? The new top commander of the IRGC is an officer named Muhammad-Ali Jaffari. Until recently, he was head of the IRGC's strategic think tank. His expertise, it is said, is fighting "color revolutions." It is said that he is responsible for the IRGC study, commissioned by Khamenei, that mapped out the early stages of all "color revolutions." This study was an attempt to nip in the bud any such movements before they could grow to uncontrollable proportions. Some have suggested that for more than a decade now, Khamenei has had something of an obsession vis-à-vis the fate of East European despots and the intellectuals who often led the movements that toppled them. Khamenei considers himself something of an intellectual and a poet, and not only meets regularly with a group of "court poets," but tries to keep abreast of the writings of the intelligentsia who managed the velvet revolutions elsewhere in the world. As so often happens with despots, it was Khamenei's zeal in obviating any possibility of a velvet revolution that helped beget one, in the form of the Green Movement that took shape in opposition to the electoral coup.

Throughout the post-election crisis, President Barack Obama's administration tempered its comments in support of the movement or in criticism of the regime's brutality. This was apparently in hopes of commencing negotiations with the regime on its nuclear program, as well as a desperate effort to avoid giving the regime any excuse to criticize the United States for meddling in Iranian affairs or to label the democratic movement as a tool of America. For thirty years now, the regime has cleverly used a self-serving narrative of U.S.-Iranian relations to hold America emotionally hostage and put it on the defensive. It has constantly conjured up moments of its controversial and contested history. The White House statement on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the hostage crisis — when radical Islamist students, supported by Khomeini, took over the American embassy and held fifty-two diplomats, soldiers, and staff members hostage for four hundred forty-four days — exemplified the Obama administration's excessive caution. The White House could have offered support to the people's democratic aspirations. It could have confirmed that during the demonstrations orchestrated by the regime to commemorate the hostage crisis, the people refused to shout slogans against the United States and instead shouted slogans against Russia and China. Obama could have acknowledged the statement of the highest Shiite cleric living in Iran at the time, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who apologized for taking over the American embassy and taking diplomats as hostages. Instead, the White House simply announced that the world "continues to bear witness to the powerful calls for justice and ... courageous pursuit of universal rights" by the people of Iran.

Khamenei showed no appreciation for this diplomatic restraint but responded by once again accusing the Obama administration of empty bombast, hypocrisy, and arrogance. Not even a child, he said, would be fooled by the president's empty words. In a dismissive tone, he referred to a letter written to him by President Obama and said sardonically that Americans write one thing in letters and do something else in deeds. A few days later, he let one of his minions tell the world that the leader at that time saw no reason for direct negotiations with the Great Satan. In the meantime, bloggers and Web sites sympathetic to the democratic movement became uniformly critical of American policy, some going so far as to speak of a "grand betrayal."

Khamenei's visceral distrust and dislike of the United States has many roots. Understanding the troubled history of recent U.S.-Iranian relations without understanding these roots is impossible. The Islamic regime has partially defined itself by this anti-Americanism, using it as a propaganda tool to establish itself as the leader of the insurgent Islamic faith. As Shiites, Iranian leaders are a minority in the Sunni-dominated world. As Iranians, they are surrounded by Arabs who have no love for Persians — Ajam in Arabic, with a hint of the pejorative always accompanying the term. The clerical leadership in Iran needed a banner that was both appealing to a large swath of Muslims around the world and bereft of any denominational or ethnic baggage. Fighting America has been as central to Sunni members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as to the Alavite Shiites of Syria and the Salafi "rejectionists" in Jordan. "Standing up" to America and Israel has been the regime's sole banner in its claimed leadership of the Islamic movement. In the weeks after the June election fiasco, just as the regime was facing its most serious domestic crisis, newspapers close to Khamenei began to more regularly call him Amir-Al-Moemenin Muslemin — the Caliph of Muslims around the world.

The regime, since its inception, has also defined itself in opposition to modernity and its accompanying secularism and democracy. Khomeini and Khamenei have more than once claimed that secularism and democracy, nationalism and rationalism — even the social sciences — are all poisoned ingredients of modernity, itself a tool of colonial hegemony. Khamenei recently railed against what he pejoratively called the "rationalistic," "materialistic" social sciences of the West. He asserted that they are all founded on the Cartesian idea of skepticism — both anathema to Islamic values and a source for the velvet revolutionary fervor in Iranian youth. Interestingly, his words followed closely those of Hajjarian in his recent post-election show trial. Still unable to speak clearly as a consequence of a failed assassination attempt, Hajjarian had a fellow prisoner read a statement wherein he declared — in a brilliant tone of irony — that he was not guilty but that real guilt lay with German sociologists Max Weber and Juergen Habermas, and that it was Western sociology that was responsible for his fall from orthodoxy. These sciences, he said, inculcate the habit of critical thinking and skepticism and thus undermine faith in Velayat-e Fagih, or rule of the highest cleric. (It is a measure of this regime's support for terrorism that the man found guilty of attempting to kill Hajjarian was freed after serving only a portion of his term and in January 2010 was publicly appointed to a prominent government position.) Though there are now more than two and a half million students studying social sciences in Iran, Khamenei ordered a new "cultural revolution" wherein the social sciences should be "Islamicized."

America as "The First New Nation," in the words of American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, and as the quintessence of modernity, cannot but prove a nemesis to the likes of Khamenei. He has, like Khomeini before him, more than once claimed that secularism begets heresy and is incompatible with piety. But America is easily the world's most pious industrialized nation; it is a country where separation of church and state is combined with profound piety. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this combination as the "genius" of American politics. Thus America remains a potent example revealing the lie at the heart of the clerical regime's claim that faithlessness is the inevitable price of secularism and democracy. This is a lie, incidentally, that is shared by every Islamist group around the world fighting for a new Islamist state based on sharia religious law.


Excerpted from The Myth of the Great Satan by Abbas Milani. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Abbas Milani is a research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. He has published more than twenty books; the most recent is Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (2008).

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