We Don't Understand Why the West Is Seen by Iran as the Great Satan

The Great Satan — that’s what Iranians continue to call America when they gather for prayers every Friday at the university in Tehran. They usually accompany this with waving their fists, which only confirms the West’s view that they are dangerous fanatics, the victims of the Ayatollahs’ sick propaganda or, simply, idiots.

We representatives of a higher culture that jettisoned a Manichean worldview several centuries ago can laugh at them with a touch of civilizational superiority, feel sorry about their illiteracy or wonder with anxiety what might happen if this rabble managed to get its hands on an atomic bomb.

It’s difficult to comprehend what those unfortunate souls hold against us. And it’s not only America that they hate with all their heart — they dislike the entire Western world. Yet we are congenial and easygoing, we want to live and let live; we want peace, we want freedom and human rights for all of humanity, etc.

This week, when Iran’s new president gives a speech to the U.N. in New York, we will probably not hear about the Great Satan. Hassan Rouhani seems surprisingly reasonable and even inclined to make some sort of compromise on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.

But is he truly seeking an understanding? Or is he only deluding us in order to gain the few years of peace that Iran needs to build its atom bomb? What is the true face of Iran — that of its gentle president or that of the crowd of furious idiots irrationally waving their fists at America?

This is a good question, but it is fundamentally flawed. It contains a false assumption that is lost on most people living in the West, namely: The furious idiots from the university in Tehran are not at all irrational. Quite the contrary — they have very rational grounds to be furious, as well as bitter, reproachful and distrustful.

“The Great Satan” was born in the Iranian mind in 1953, when the CIA and British intelligence jointly orchestrated the downfall of Iran’s democratically chosen president Mohammad Mossadegh (who was Time magazine “Man of the Year,” by the way).

Mossadegh fell into disfavor because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry and broke the monopoly of the BP concern (then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). The British lost billions, while the Americans feared that Iran might embark on the road to communism (those fears were unfounded because Mossadegh was a nationalist, not a communist). For these reasons, they united their forces, provoked riots in the street and handed power over to Shah Reza Pahlavi. A few weeks ago, the Americans even declassified secret CIA documents about this operation.

Till the very end, Washington supported the shah, who was increasingly hated in Iran. The police tortured members of the opposition in his jails, and Muslim women were forbidden from wearing the veil because the shah believed this would make them more modern. President Jimmy Carter hosted the shah in Washington and, in his toasts, praised his “enlightened leadership,” while professor Zbigniew Brzeziński, then U.S. national security adviser, assured the shah of America’s support to the very end.

After the revolution came the rule of the ayatollahs (the poor Iranian women were now instructed to wear the veil). From then on, Washington supported Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, who fought a war with Iran for eight years. Even though the Americans knew very well that Iraqi troops were using chemical weapons, they systematically informed them of Iranian troop movements. The United States were thereby accomplices in the gassing of Iranian soldiers. This collaboration with Saddam also produced documents which have recently been declassified.

In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 persons on board. The plane hadn’t gone astray and was traveling properly, so the responsibility for the error fell squarely on the Americans. But what can one say — mistakes happen. And what did U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush, who was running for election, say?

“I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are …!” That is what he said.

Of course, Iran’s list of evidence that America is the Great Satan is much longer. It is worth keeping this in mind. In general, it is sometimes worthwhile to stand aside from one’s own self and look at the world through the eyes of another. Unfortunately, we, the people of the West, usually have great difficulty doing that.

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