February 28, 2001
An important consideration in the choice of an official name of a country
is whether or not it is a reflection of that country's culture and heritage
The Pahlavi regime might have been influenced by German propaganda to
insist on "Iran" rather than "Persia", but it is important
to note that "Iran" is how the territory was referred to by numerous
For example, the Mongol Il-Khanid dynasty seized upon the legitimacy
of ruling "Iran" in the tradition of great pre-Islamic dynasties
in part to contrast themselves with regional rivals (such as the Mamluks)
and in part to cover for the fact that at the outset of their rule they
had no religious legitimacy or historical ties to the area.
The Safavids -- who also styled themselves as rulers of Iran -- inadvertently
helped to shape the modern concept of Iran's "natural" boundaries.
Much of Qajar foreign policy in the 19th century was based upon regaining
Safavid territories lost in the 18th century. These efforts coincided with
(and influenced) the first articulations of Iranian nationalism.
Throughout all these developments, one will not find an Il-Khanid, Safavid
or Qajar document that would refer to the "Mamaalek-e Mahruseh-e Paars"
or "Paadeshaahaan-e Paarsiaan." When modern international diplomacy
was taking shape in the 19th century, Qajar diplomats referred to Iran
in French as "Perse" and English as "Persia" because
those were the French and English words for Iran.
No doubt, the Reza Shah's regime was looking to score nationalist points
by insisting that foreign countries use the native historical term "Iran"
rather than the English or French term. There is also no doubt that there
was a strong pro-German climate in Iran in the 1930's.
The most shocking (and frankly unique) example of this sentiment was
Sayf Azad's "Iran-e Bastan", a very pro-Nazi (not just pro-German)
current events magazine published from 1933 to 1935. It does not help matters
that advocates of extreme Iranian cultural nationalism, and early supporters
of Reza Shah, were writing from Berlin (in periodicals like "Kaveh"
and "Iranshahr") in the 1920's in the wake of World War I --
the same environment that bred Nazism.
But the suggestion that Reza Shah's insistence on "Iran" instead
of "Persia" signaled an effort to curry favor with Nazi Germany
flies in the face of much stronger evidence that Reza Shah was looking
primarily to secure Iran's security from the risks of global and regional
conflict (Reza Shah's trips to Turkey in 1934 and the Sa'dabad Pact of
1938 come to mind).
He saw correctly that his government could not withstand a foreign
invasion of any kind. The "lack of evidence" of an undeclared
alliance with Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II needs also
to be seen alongside efforts to suppress Iranian Nazis both before 1939
and afterward when Reza Shah's continuing relationship with Nazi Germany
became less and less tolerable to the Allies.
Does not the problem of "Iran" versus "Persia" have
more to do with current concerns over politics and the international image
of the Islamic Republic than with concerns about the official Iranian chauvinism
of the 1930's or the Pahlavi Dynasty in general? Nobody worries about the
fact that Mohammad Reza Shah was forging a secret alliance with East Germany
during the Cold War when he called himself the "Light of the Aryans".
Ultra nationalist chauvinism is a failing that was not limited to the
Pahlavis -- the Islamic Republic has its own religious-flavored varieties
to serve up. The term "Iran" does not have a sixty year history
-- it has a history that is many centuries old among the people who have
inhabited the area.
The choice of "Persian" versus "Iranian" cannot
erase the parts of our history that trouble us, nor can it distance us
from the problems we confront as Iranians or Iranian-Americans today. We'll
always have a little explaining to do about what our ancestry and culture
mean to us, and these are discussions that we should embrace rather than
try to circumvent with semantic stratagems.
University of Michigan-Dearborn