The region that is now the country of Iran has been known by many different names, and has had varying boundaries and borders over the past 5000 years. The name Iran comes from the Avestan word airyānąm, appearing in the time of Cyrus the Great (4th century BC).
What was Persia?
Persia was first coined by the Greeks as a term to refer to Cyrus the Great’s empire. It stemmed from the the word Parsa, the name of the group of people from which Cyrus the Great emerged to rule. Thus the word Persia is an exonym, a name that is given to a group of people by an outside force.
Greek legend associated the name Persia with Perseus, giving him a fictional son, Perses, from whom the Persian people stemmed.
Why did the name Iran emerge?
The name Iran had long been used – dating back to the Zoroastrians (1000BC) – along with other variations on the name including Arya, (literally, Land of the Aryans). Certainly by the 4th century AD, the term Iran was being used in writing and literature, and some Western texts noted an internal preference for the name Iran by the 19th century.
In the 1930s, steps began to be taken by Reza Shah to formalise the change in name from Persia to Iran, and the request came into force in March 1935. The British requested to continue to use Persia as Iran was too similar to Iraq – both countries were involved in the Second World War and occupied by the British and Churchill cited worries that the similarity in name would be confusing.
In 1959, Reza Shah’s son announced that the terms Iran and Persia could be used interchangeably in formal correspondence. Despite this, Iran has become the country’s dominant name – its official name since 1979 is Jomhuri-ye Eslāmi-ye Irān, which translates as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
20th century Iran
Oil was discovered in Persia in the early 20th century, and whilst the country’s vast land mass had long had complicated relationships with its neighbours, this development changed the political and economic landscape of the Middle East forever. The rest of the world paid Persia new attention, and the British were the first to capitalise on the discovery, setting up the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909, which took total control of Iran’s oil industry.
Iran’s oil and petroleum industry have remained at the heart of internal and external politics ever since: the influence of Western powers in Iran helped lead a backlash in the formal of cultural ‘cleansing’ and conservatism, and the formal establishment of Iran as an Islamic Republic.
What’s the debate?
For many modern day Iranians, including the diaspora, the issue comes with wider connotations. Persia – whilst old-fashioned in the modern world – has connotations with a glorious past. Persian literature, poetry, art and food are all recognised as sophisticated cultural phenomena from the region in their own right. The Persian Empire was vast and complex, a melting pot of religions, cultures and civilizations: heritage in which people can find pride.
The name Iran, on the other hand, is tied to the nation’s turbulent 20th century history. Reza Shah’s coup d’etat was directed by the British, and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, with Reza Shah at its head, was arguably a turning point for foreign interference in Persian government. Reza Shah’s subsequent decision to rename Persia to Iran thus is associated with this defining moment in Iranian history.
A heated topic
Iran and Persia are not strictly exactly the same: their conflation has been criticised by many scholars, who argue a ‘national identity’ is an extremely recent idea within the Middle East, and the state of Iran following the revolution of 1979: it cannot simply be retrospectively applied to the people of Persia, who would more likely have identified with ethnic or local identities.
Historians and critics have also argued that Reza Shah’s imagined version of Iran as a nation-state relied on a glorification of a utopian past – the Land of the Aryans – in order to gain legitimacy and a sense of superiority. The term ‘Aryan’ also gained heightened currency in the early 20th century, as eugenics became an increasingly accepted and popular science.
The increasing emphasis on Iranian Islam, and Shi’i exceptionalism caused divisions within the new nation-state of Iran which persist today. Nonetheless, Reza Shah continued to use the names of past emperors and rulers of Persia to invoke the glories of ages long passed and to tie the past and the present.
Today, Iran is used predominantly in reference to the nation-state, whilst long-standing cultural exports such as food, art and literature are often referred to as Persian because of their long-standing and historic connotations with the region.