Debunking The 'Great Satan' Myth

Iranian officials often refer to America as the "Great Satan," the meddler constantly working to undermine their country. Host Guy Raz talks to Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, who argues in a new article that the "Great Satan" may not be as diabolical as it's been portrayed.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We begin the hour with a look at Iran and some of the other foreign policy challenges the Obama administration faces this year. In a moment, former assistant secretary of State James Rubin assesses some of those challenges, but first to Stanford University professor Abbas Milani.

In a recent article in The New Republic, he wrote about what he calls the great Satan myth, the idea that the United States has been behind several conspiracies to keep Iran from developing into a modern nation-state.

In 1953, Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, was ousted in a coup and replaced by the iron-fisted Shah Reza Pahlavi. The CIA played a role in that coup, but Milani argues it couldn't have happened without tacit support from Iran's own clerical establishment. And he says that the narrative about that period promoted by Iran's leadership today is simply misleading.

Dr. ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University): It is wrong, first of all, in the sense that it simplifies a much more complicated role. The U.S. tried for virtually two and a half years to mediate between Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was the prime minister, and Britain, whose oil fields had been nationalized.

Britain, in fact, was all but ready to invade Iran. Truman administration stopped that invasion and tried to find a negotiated settlement. And finally when they decided, the Truman administration decided, that there is not going to be a negotiated settlement, that Dr. Mosaddeq is not willing to compromise, then they begin planning for what they call Operation Ajax.

And far more importantly, the clergy at the time were on the side of the United States. Whatever role, whatever evil role the United States played, it played it on the side of the clergy. The clergy in Iran departed from supporting Mosaddeq, became his foes and made him vulnerable to the eventual coup that overthrew him.

RAZ: Let's go back for a moment and talk about, specifically, about the U.S.' role. I mean, the basic narrative is that the United States has always played a key role in Iranian politics. This is the narrative widely accepted among the leadership in Iran and, to some extent, by the foreign policy establishment here in Washington, D.C. What is this information based on? Why is this view so widely accepted?

Dr. MILANI: I think it is accepted because, like many myths, it has some base in reality and some base in ignorance. If you, in fact, look at U.S. involvement in Iran, U.S. begins to get involved in Iran after World War II. And the first attempt by FDR, the Roosevelt administration, is, in fact, to create what they call a democratic experiment in Iran. And from Roosevelt to Carter, every administration, with the exception of the Nixon administration, pushed behind the scenes, the shah towards a more democratic, a more open society.

CIA documents, National Security Council documents in 1958 predict a revolution in Iran if the shah does not change his ways.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. But at the same time, I mean, declassified documents show that the United States helped the shah create his feared and hated secret police as well. So the U.S. did have a role that could, I think, fairly be described as a meddlesome one at certain points.

Dr. MILANI: Oh, absolutely. I don't quarrel over that at all. And the gist of the article is that the notion that the U.S. has been only propping up despots in Iran and that the only purpose Iran served for the U.S. was to buy its weaponry and sell its cheap oil does not get to the core of a much more complicated, much more nuanced relationship.

RAZ: Abbas Milani, in your article, you write: This is a seductive narrative, but what's strange is the group that it has seduced, the very meddlers themselves in Washington. What do you mean by that?

Dr. MILANI: I mean the Obama administration. I mean the Clinton administration. I mean, to some extent, even the Bush administration. Successive American administrations have, since the rise of the Islamic Republic, bought into the narrative that the Islamic Republic has sold them on the nature of U.S. involvement in Iran, and then the clergy do something else. When the U.S. has been helpful to them, they completely ignore that history.

RAZ: You trace what you call President Obama's reluctance to openly embrace Iran's opposition because of this fear that it will give the impression that, you know, once again, the U.S. is meddling, and that in turn will only undermine the opposition. Isn't that reasonable, though, I mean, to say, I don't want to publicly speak about this because it's only going to play into the hands of the Iranian regime?

Dr. MILANI: I think there is wisdom in this caution, but you can be overcautious. I think the United States could have easily been much more supportive, much more openly supportive, of the democratic movement and not buy into this mythology that the regime has basically forced on the world.

RAZ: That's Abbas Milani. He's the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Iran Democracy Project. His latest book is called "Eminent Persians: Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran."

Abbas Milani, thank you so much.

Dr. MILANI: It's been a pleasure talking with you.

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