In November 1979, two weeks after Iranian voters approved his Islamic revolutionary constitution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini identified the U.S. as the source of Iranian misery. The angry old cleric also swore that American corruption not only polluted Muslim nations but tainted the entire planet.
Khomeini called America “the Great Satan.” The ayatollah’s catch phrase generated hellfire headlines and hours of intense television commentary. On the Internet, “Great Satan” still rates its own Wikipedia page. A Google search produces devilish depictions of Uncle Sam but also brutally ironic references to anti-government demonstrations in 2009 and several biting editorial cartoons from that same year. The demonstrators are protesting the corrupt and polluted Islamic regime of Khomeini’s follow-on clerical tyrants. In the cartoons, bewildered ayatollahs discover they are today’s Great Satans.
The last three decades have hammered Khomeini and his revolution. Khomeini’s personal fanaticism destroyed the broad popular support his revolution briefly enjoyed. A month after fingering America as the planet’s demon, he assumed the Islamic constitution-approved role of supreme leader — in other words, he became a tyrant.
Asking if Iran was worse off under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s corrupt secular regime or the Khomeinists’ corrupt, failed and impoverishing dictatorship is a theoretical question. It is, however, a question nagging all failed revolutions.
As Cuba slid into hapless poverty, Fidel and Raul Castro faced it. Would 21st century Cuba have been better off economically if Fulgencio Batista had remained in power? The likely answer is yes. Bastista’s crooked junta sported a diversified economy fueled by exports. The Castro brothers’ crooked junta exported Marxist revolution fueled by cheap Soviet oil.
The shah pursued rapid economic modernization and development policies, with the goal of economic integration into the global trading system. Khomeini and his heirs disdained globalization as an American evil and instead pursued global Islamic revolution.
In any case, the corrupt legacies of both governments burden contemporary Iran.
Khomeini labeled the Castros’ mentor, the Soviet Union, “the lesser Satan” because it was powerful, atheist and Russian. Khomeini loathed Marxist atheism, but whether led by czars or commissar, the Russian empire was an old Iranian enemy.
Yet religion breeding poverty and corruption is where Cuba’s and Iran’s failed revolutions entwine. Marxism was a religious cult swaddled in magic. Once the economics were right, the Communist Man would appear, the dictatorship of the proletariat would wither, and no one would be poor and everybody would be equal. Khomeini’s Shia Islamic revolutionaries argued that when everyone got religion right, and the supreme leader would know when that happened, the infidels would burn in hell and the faithful would prosper in spirit and pocketbook.
Yes, people believed this magical hooey, and some still do, unfortunately.
The question of the moment — and the truly buried news hook of this column — is: Does Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government believe it?
If they do, recent events ought to give them pause.
Morsi isn’t Khomeini, and 2013 Egypt isn’t Khomeini’s Iran. It took about 15 years for the majority of Iranians to agree that Khomeini’s religiously garbed tyranny was an economic flop. Why? Iran has oil to sell. Egypt doesn’t — at least, not in exportable quantities. Egypt’s Arab Spring revolutionaries, secular and religious, both decried the Mubarak government’s corruption. Morsi, however, instead seeking economic justice and revitalization, first sought to enshrine Islamic law.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries chose to cram an Islamist constitution down the throats of Egypt’s secular and liberal revolutionaries, and revolutionary unity shattered. The Brotherhood got its religious victory; it also got political turmoil, and the turmoil is savaging Egypt’s frail economy. Happy New Year: On Jan. 2, the Egyptian pound hit a new low and debt insurance costs skyrocketed.
Morsi and his fellow religious zealots failed to use their political and moral capital to confront Egypt’s Great Satan: its own systemic corruption and poverty. Unless Morsi and his government reverse course, rapidly, the Egyptian people will soon be seeking alternative leaders. If the change doesn’t come democratically, they will be fighting a bloody civil war.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist.