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 as the “Great Satan.” As this Koranic 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 is that it goes beyond these mythological qualities to muster the stuff of history. It was the CIA, the story goes, that deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader back in 1953, and then spent 26 years propping up a despotic Shah while he mercilessly abused his people.
As Iranians protested the sham election last summer, the regime wielded this narrative to bolster itself. Its opponents were denounced as puppets of the very meddlers who had done so much harm to the country over the past century. Ayatollah Khamenei rehashed this history in a November 3 speech, describing how the United States “embarked on hatching plots against the nation from the very early days.”
This is a seductive narrative, but what’s strange is the group that it has seduced: the very meddlers themselves in Washington. As the regime has teetered these past months, many in the United States (and especially at the highest rungs of government) have held their tongues. There has been a reluctance to voice solidarity with the green movement or to loudly protest regime abuses, for fear that any criticism from the United States will be perceived as the latest installment in this history. Obama, for his part, has voiced his support for the protestors 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.
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 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 rather different version of foreign policy toward Iran. The Shah may have been a U.S. ally in the cold war, but the relationship was fraught. Behind closed doors, the United States pushed hard for the country to democratize. During the periods 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 in Iran.