Who is the ‘Great Satan’?

In a recent speech, Ayatollah Khamenei used metaphors to describe US influence.

Iran protests 1979
Ayatollah Khomeini began to use the phrase 'the Great Satan' soon after the Iranian Revolution, writes Dabashi [Getty Images]

There is scarcely a phrase more pointed and piercing than “the Great Satan” when Iranian authorities – beginning with the late Ayatollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Khamenei – use it as a code-name for the United States. But what exactly does it mean? What does it mean when, today, Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, cites Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and refers to the US as “the Great Satan”?

Khomeini began to use the phrase soon after the Iranian Revolution (1977-1979), and the metaphor became particularly paramount in the course of the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981) and remained a cornerstone of the ruling ideology throughout the last three-and-a-half decades. A recent reiteration of this phrase by Khamenei in Persian is the best occasion to think through the phrase and ask what it could possibly mean. 

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In a sermon delivered to a large group of visitors in Tehran just this past week, Khamenei began by welcoming his audience from around the country with proper Quranic recitations, giving them a short admonition on their religious obligations during the current month of the Islamic calendar, and then swiftly turned his attention to the Iranian calendar and the month of Shahrivar (August-September). He reminded his audience of a number of crucial events, past and present, and namely, the atrocities of the Pahlavi monarchy, the treacheries of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), and Saddam Hussein. He said all of them had the active support of the US. 

As an absolute metaphor of the enemy, ‘The Great Satan’ is embedded in the Islamic Republic.


Then he turned his attention to the young generation and commanded that the proper authorities must make sure that these historic hallmarks are not forgotten. To do his share, he offered a memorable allegory, and likened the role of the US in Iran to that of the Egyptian Pharaoh and, therefore, referred to Khomeini as Moses.

It is here that Khamenei cited Khomeini, referring to the US as “the Great Satan” and further explained that, “This ‘Great Satan’ is a very meaningful expression. Chief among all satans in the world is Iblis. But as the Quran specifies, Iblis can only seduce people … he beguiles people. The US, however, both seduces and murders people. It seduces people, and then it imposes sanctions against them; it raises the flag of human rights, and yet, every day an innocent, harmless person is murdered by the police on the streets of the US … all the warmongering in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, are all the US’ doing.”

Here, he suddenly intensifies his admonitory tone: “Yet, some people want to adorn and decorate this ‘Great Satan’ and turn him into an angel.” The fact that he is using the phrase entirely for domestic consumption is immediately evident. “Forget about religion, about the revolution. What about the wellbeing of the country? What about reason? What kind of reasoning – what clear conscience? – would transform the US into a friend – into something trustworthy? Into a saving angle?”

Hidden under an absolute metaphor

The metaphor has, by now, completely abandoned any reference to the US and is of an internal matter: “This is how they are … they decorate themselves with a very spiffy appearance: a tie, aftershave, appeasing to the eye. They fool simple-minded people … the great nation of Iran expelled this ‘Great Satan’ from this country. We should not allow it to come back. Now that we have kicked it out of the door, we should not allow it to come back through the window. We should not allow them to find influence here, for their hostility is endless.”

“The Great Satan” is metaphoric subterfuge. The man is anxious and deeply concerned. From the time it was first employed by Khomeini and up until now as it’s used by Khamenei, the phrase has had a domestic function: to denounce and repress the forceful temptation of seductions “within” the Islamic Republic – forces that want and plot to open up to the US; forces ranging most ostensibly from Ayatollah Rafsanjani to former President Khatami.

Khamenei knows, senses, and is frightened by these forces, for it will rob him of the single most abiding source of his legitimacy: the Quranic justification of a theology of asceticism and resistance that marks the source of destabilising his revolutionary delusion from within, not from the outside.

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As an absolute metaphor of the enemy, “the Great Satan” is embedded in the Islamic Republic itself – its discursive self-consciousness, its hidden and repressed desires, now manifested in the neoliberal nightmare that the nuclear deal is ushering into Iran. 


Khamenei is sincere in his fear. He is reported to have said: “They are waiting for me not to be here, say 10 years from now, to do their mischiefs.” He sees the revolution, to which he has devoted his life, slipping away from him. He had no choice but to allow for the nuclear negotiations to proceed, and yet, he detests the results of what he has authorised.

Towards the end of his life, he has become a tormented, Shakespearean tragic hero – King Lear, witnessing the destruction of his kingdom triggered by his own follies, and paving the way of his own destruction by means of his own rhetoric.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.