The “Great Satan” Begs to Differ

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Iranian regime has never found itself more vulnerable. And, with this vulnerability, it has never leaned more heavily on its own narrative of history. This narrative, of course, has a central antagonist, a character conjured up as the “Great Satan.” As this Quranic moniker implies, the Islamic Republic ascribes supernatural qualities to its adversary: from far away in Washington, D.C., the Great Satan has the power to send hordes of stooges to shout in the streets and the remarkable ability to manufacture every ill in Iranian society.

The power of this narrative reaches beyond such mythological claims into the stuff of history. It was the CIA, the story goes, that deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader back in 1953 and then spent twenty-six years propping up a despotic shah while he mercilessly abused his people.

As Iranians protested their sham presidential election last summer, the regime wielded this narrative to bolster itself. Its opponents were denounced as puppets of the meddlers who had done so much harm to the country during the past century. The Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, rehashed this history in a recent speech, describing how the United States “embarked on hatching plots against the nation from the very early days.”

This is a seductive narrative, stranger still for whom it has seduced: the very meddlers themselves in Washington. As the Tehran regime has teetered these past months, many in the United States, especially at the highest rungs of government, have held their tongues. They have been reluctant to voice solidarity with Iran’s green movement or to loudly protest regime abuses, fearing that any criticism from the United States would be perceived as the latest installment in this history. President Obama has voiced his support for the protesters in passive language: “The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice” is his strange formulation—a description that places the United States in the role of bystander.

It was the CIA, the story goes, that deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader back in 1953, and then spent twenty-six years propping up a despotic shah while he mercilessly abused his people.

There are, arguably, strategic reasons for the United States to keep silent on the fate of the democratic movement, but history is not one of them. Rather, the Tehran regime’s version of events (past and present) is self-serving and, at critical junctures, altogether baseless. Documents, some recently declassified, from various U.S. archives show a different version of foreign policy toward Iran. In it, the shah might have been a U.S. ally in the Cold War, but the relationship was fraught. Behind closed doors, Washington pushed hard for his country to democratize. And when the United States failed to stand on the side of the Iranian people, it paid a horrible price.

It is worth revisiting this history, not simply because it debunks the Manichaean theory of the past touted by the mullahs but also because it contains important lessons for how the United States can navigate the current crisis.


The event that has come to define perceptions of U.S. meddling is the coup that ejected the popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. Both former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and President Obama have acknowledged America’s role in the coup in speeches that were widely taken to be apologies.

The American understanding of the event largely derives from a 1979 memoir published by Kermit Roosevelt Jr. The author, a CIA operative and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, slipped into Iran and spent considerable sums on black propaganda intended to inflict mortal wounds on Mossadegh. But Roosevelt’s memoir inflated his own and, in turn, America’s centrality to the coup. Although declassified CIA documents confirmed many details of his account, which Roosevelt told with the relish of a John le Carré thriller, his version was exceptionally self-serving. For instance, despite knowing little about Iranian society and speaking no Persian, Roosevelt launched by his own description an instantly potent propaganda campaign. Dwight Eisenhower, president during the 1953 coup, was to characterize Roosevelt’s report as seeming “more like a dime novel.”

The shah might have been a U.S. ally in the Cold War, but the relationship was fraught. Behind closed doors, Washington pushed hard for his country to democratize.

The Roosevelt book, however, has had an enduring legacy. It depicts the coup as an American and British concoction and inadvertently absolves Mossadegh of his many missteps. The backstory of his fall is far more complicated. Mossadegh had initially seen the Americans as his staunch ally, and the United States reciprocated this warmth. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who first paid attention to events in Iran. During World War II, American soldiers were stationed in Iran to manage the transnational railroad, an essential supply line for the badly bruised Red Army. And, as Roosevelt left the 1943 Tehran conference with Stalin and Churchill, he met at the airport with his envoy, General Patrick Hurley, and formulated a new Iran policy whose primary goals included promoting democracy and ridding Iran of colonial forces. In rhetoric that might now be tainted as neoconservative, the policy clearly aimed to transform Iran into a showcase of democracy and the vanguard of the decolonized Middle East. As Hurley later distilled the new policy, “[Iran] can achieve for herself the fulfillment of the principles of justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom from want, equality of opportunity, and to a degree, freedom from fear.”

Mossadegh seemed to represent the promise of postcolonial Iran. Even as ardent a proponent of Pax Americana as Henry Luce felt comfortable making him Time’s “Man of the Year.” But the idea of supporting a postcolonial democrat necessarily put the United States on a collision course with its allies. Winston Churchill despised Mossadegh for nationalizing Iran’s oil fields and refineries, which the British considered their rightful heirlooms. In London, the British mulled over plans to seize those assets back militarily. For nearly two years, the Truman administration, particularly the diplomat Averell Harriman, worked furiously to broker a solution to this standoff. And, even though those efforts failed, they did prevent a British attack. The British grew so frustrated by the U.S. efforts to fashion a compromise that, according to documents in their archives, they came to believe that the United States was dealing with Mossadegh behind their backs.

President Roosevelt formulated an Iran policy in 1943 whose primary goals included promoting democracy and ridding Iran of colonial forces.

None of these subtleties, of course, ever merits a mention in Tehran’s version of events. Nor do the clerics mention a detail that grows richer in irony with each apology by an American politician. It was the clerical establishment’s animosity toward Mossadegh that laid the groundwork for his ouster. A broad swath of clerics—Islamists such as Ayatollah Abolgasem Kashani, a mentor of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—had initially supported Mossadegh. But by late 1952 the clerics had turned against him after he bucked their demands. Kashani unsuccessfully pressed Mossadegh for the right to appoint key ministers. Another top cleric called on the prime minister to purge the civil service of Baha’is—a bane of Shia clergy. The clergy’s allegiance to Mossadegh weakened further as he allowed the communist Tudeh Party to gain ever more power, despite his personal abhorrence of communism. After Mossadegh lost the allegiance of the clergy, his fate became increasingly clear. (He had also alienated the middle class, who had grown increasingly weary of ideological warfare, and the army had pleaded for his ouster.)

None of this is to defend America’s role in the coup, but it was hardly the only or even the decisive factor in Mossadegh’s fall. Indeed, in this—the most obvious instance of its meddling in Iranian history—the United States actually meddled on the side of the very religious establishment that now complains so bitterly about the Great Satan.


The history of U.S. involvement in Iran centers on Shah Reza Pahlavi. On the one hand, the United States supported the shah and helped him consolidate his rule. On the other, the United States quietly and persistently tried to prod him toward a more democratic system. The Americans helped the shah create his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, in 1957—and then, the next year, attempted to roll back his move toward authoritarianism. For the United States, those two objectives were not contradictory. Both the CIA and the State Department, which clearly preferred the shah to any alternative, openly worried that the country would succumb to revolution absent substantial steps toward democracy.

This position, however, produced a state of constant tension between the shah and the United States. During his weakest moments—particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s—the shah would nod in agreement when the Americans extolled democratization. For example, in 1958, the U.S. ambassador urged the shah to engage in preventive measures such as an anticorruption campaign and “fireside chats” with the people of Iran. Not long afterward, a new anticorruption law was passed and the shah gave his first public press conference. But the shah never put any conviction into these gestures. Social change, he believed, could only be imposed with an iron fist. When the Americans made their demands, he used an array of tricks to change the subject, invariably insisting that the pressure to democratize would merely empower the communists. Moreover, the anticorruption law soon faded and was used only to settle grudges.

The Americans grew increasingly frustrated with the shah’s authoritarianism. When he faced a military coup in 1958, the United States tacitly assented, doing nothing to relay word to him of General Valiollah Qarani’s plot. Indeed, the CIA station in Tehran arranged to publish anti-regime propaganda in the Iranian press—and then let the shah know that the agency had planted the material there to highlight its wavering allegiance. As CIA Director Allen Dulles told a meeting of the National Security Council in 1958, “We still take a gloomy view of the shah’s future unless he can be persuaded to undertake some dramatic reforms.”

In 1952–53, during the most obvious instance of its meddling in Iranian history, the United States actually meddled on the side of the very religious establishment that now complains so bitterly about the Great Satan.

The tension between the Americans and the shah reached a peak during the Kennedy years, when the administration based its Iran policy on the views of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, among others. Based on his travels in Iran, Douglas concluded that the shah was an incorrigible despot and advocated ramping up the push toward democracy. (Robert Kennedy also shared an aversion to the shah.) An administration task force considered the fragile state of the shah and questioned the very rationale of the relationship. This was, after all, the era of the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps; the administration was showing a diminished patience for undemocratic allies. But the task force concluded that the strategic costs of abandonment were too great. Instead, President Kennedy focused on redoubling the Eisenhower efforts to reform the regime.

Fortunately for Kennedy, he had the perfect vessel for this approach: the reformist prime minister, Ali Amini. Together, the Americans and Amini persuaded the shah to attempt a breathtaking transformation of Iran, including suffrage for women, land reform, and a reduction of the military budget. The plan envisioned a new class of technocrats to steward a modern bureaucracy. (Eventually, the shah convinced the Americans that he, better than any prime minister, could bring about these reforms.)

As the shah set out to implement these ambitious changes, to be known as the White Revolution, he came into conflict with the Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts. The mullahs considered women’s suffrage the first step toward harlotry and land reform a transgression against Islam’s belief in the sanctity of private property. The mullahs denounced these changes as “dishonest slogans that will bring nothing short of corruption, prostitution, and other miseries.”

But, to a large extent, the White Revolution was a success. The Iranian economy transcended its semifeudal state and grew rapidly. Women entered the political domain and workforce, and even the SAVAK suspended its program of torture and generally liberalized.

The greatest sources of Islamist ire—the empowerment of women and other trappings of modernity—were hardly issues that could unite a broad coalition, especially one that included communists and discontented swaths of the middle class. Instead, Khomeini and his followers attempted to cloak themselves in the language of the left or at least provide the language of the left with a Shia gloss. The Islamists translated classic concepts from Marxism into their own discourse: The proletariat became the mostaz’af (the weakened), the bourgeois became tagut (rebels against God), and imperialism became estekbar (arrogance).

No matter what the United States does—even if it maintains a studied silence—Tehran will describe its opponents as U.S. tools. This accusation is politically necessary for the mullahs and deeply embedded in their worldview.

For all its work pushing the shah in the direction of democracy, the United States also did its part to inadvertently abet his opponents. In 1964, the Pentagon pressed the shah to sign a basing agreement that would have offered Americans in Iran diplomatic immunity from prosecution. For a century, Iran had been a battleground for the great powers, and this agreement reeked of colonialism. The shah’s acceptance of this agreement allowed the Islamists to turn it into a rallying cry.

President Nixon provided another impetus for revolution when he ostentatiously stopped pressuring the shah to move toward democracy. To be sure, this pressure had achieved only limited effects under previous administrations; it certainly had not brought about a European-style constitutional monarchy. But it had improved conditions on the margins and, to some extent, checked the shah’s authoritarian instincts. Nixon and key adviser Henry Kissinger concluded that the shah was now in full control of the country, and they therefore found it unnecessary to worry about revolutionary challenges. So U.S. intelligence scaled back its Iran reporting to levels seen during World War II, and the Americans ended their contacts with the opposition. Perhaps this is why the CIA was blindsided by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Absent U.S. pressure, the shah entered a new, monomaniacal phase. Flush with cash from the oil-price spike of the early 1970s, he went on what the CIA called a “lending binge.” He gave money to nearly anyone who asked, including Western countries that had once assisted Iran. The shah often described democracy as more befitting the “blue-eyed world.” Now he acted on that sentiment. In 1975, he declared—by royal fiat—that Iran would become a one-party state, replete with pseudo-fascist trappings. The rise of an urban guerrilla movement against the shah created an atmosphere that spurred the SAVAK to unleash a wave of censorship in society and torture in prisons.

This authoritarianism, of course, sparked widespread discontent. After Iran had boiled over into a revolutionary state in the winter of 1978, President Carter commissioned old State Department hand George Ball, who had traveled to Iran a half dozen times, to present an independent assessment of the country’s situation. Nixon’s approach, Ball concluded, had created disastrous conditions, and only a rapid move to democracy could avert a crisis. Yet Ball saw few candidates who could usher in this change. The United States used its considerable influence with the Iranian armed forces to dissuade coup plotters. But these efforts, made behind closed doors, did nothing to change the climate—and nothing to diminish the anti-Americanism that ultimately resulted in the siege and occupation of the U.S. Embassy.


The history of U.S. involvement in Iran was not an unambiguous Cold War travesty like the Vietnam War. For much of the era leading up to the Islamic Revolution, the United States supported the cause of Iranian democracy. And when Washington failed to push the shah in that direction, U.S. interests suffered.

Will the United States stand beside Iranian democracy now? Many in Washington worry that such a stand would backfire, that it would bolster the mullahs by arousing the innate nationalism of the Iranian people. But this is to misunderstand the regime. No matter what the United States does—even if it maintains a studied silence—the regime will describe its opponents as U.S. tools. This accusation is politically necessary for the mullahs and deeply embedded in their worldview. Besides, no matter how much the regime denounces the Great Satan, Iranians on the whole remain positively disposed toward the United States, at least relative to the rest of the Muslim world.

Nothing suggests that President Obama should abandon the idea of engagement, a policy long supported by Iranian democrats, who also worry about it being badly implemented. Negotiations that ignore human rights and democracy are indeed a form of appeasement. When the Obama administration speaks to the mullahs about nuclear weapons, it must bring those concerns to the fore as well, just as the Reagan administration did in its later dealings with the Soviets. It can use such meetings to send a profound message of support to Iranian democrats. In the end, Iranians who favor democracy are the world’s best hope of solving the current nuclear impasse.

But, whatever policy the Obama administration adopts, it must not let a tendentious narrative of history tie its hands. The past must not weigh down the United States with guilt. Rather, it should provide a lesson in the cost of failing to stand on the side of democracy.