How Persia became ‘Iran’
How Persia became” Iran”, forfeiting its rich cultural birthright
In 1935 the Iranian government requested those countries which it had diplomatic relations with, to call Persia “Iran,” which is the name of the country in Persian. The suggestion for the change is said to have come from the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis.
Persia or Iran, Persian or Farsi
IRANIAN STUDIES, VOL. XXII, No.1, 1989
In 1935 the Persian government requested countries with which it had diplomatic relations to call Persia Iran, which is the name of the country in Persian. This was a grievous error based on a misdirected sense of nationalism. The suggestion for the change is said to have come from the Persian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis. At the time Germany was in the grip of racial fever and cultivated good relations with nations of Aryan blood.
It is said that some German friends of the ambassador persuaded him that, as with the advent of Reza Shah Persia had turned a new leaf in its history and had freed itself from the pernicious influences of Britain and Russia, whose interventions in Persian affairs had practically crippled the country under the Qajars, it was only fitting that the country be called by its own name, Iran. This would not only signal a new beginning and bring home to the world the new era in Persian history, but would also signify the Aryan race of its population, as Iran is a cognate of Aryan and derived from it.
Flattered by this view, the government fell into the trap. The Persian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a circular to all foreign embassies in Tehran, requesting that the country thenceforth be called Iran. Diplomatic courtesy obliged, and by and by the name Iran began to appear in official correspondence and news items.
At first Iran sounded alien, and many failed to recognize its connection with Persia. Some thought that it was perhaps one of the new countries like Iraq and Jordan carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, or a country in Africa or Southeast Asia that had just been granted independence; and not a few confused it with Iraq, itself a recent entity. In this way the new name not only failed to convey the racial affinity of Iran with the West let alone the imagined benefits that might result from such an affinity but also, ironically, Iran was taken by most to refer to an Arab or Arabic-speaking country. As time passed and as a number of events, like the Allied invasion of the country in 1941 and the nationalization of the oil industry under Mosaddeq, put the country in the headlines, the name Iran became generally accepted, and Persia fell into comparative disuse, though more slowly in Britain than in the United States.
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The adoption of the name Iran no doubt undermined the countries cultural reputation and dealt a severe blow to its long-term interests. To educated people everywhere the name Persia is associated with a number of pleasing notions that in the main emphasize the countries cultural heritage. One speaks of Persian art, Persian literature, Persian carpets, Persian miniatures, Persian mosques and Persian gardens, all of which attest to a general refinement of taste and culture. It is true that Persia also brings to the Western mind the Persian wars with Greece, and the home of an absolute monarchy that is often contrasted to Greek democracy; but even then Persia does not evoke the image of a weak or backward country, but rather of a robust and mighty empire.
Its biblical associations are particularly favorable because of Cyrus freeing the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and his assistance in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Iran, on the other hand, possesses none of these associations. It is a barren word in languages other than Persian, denoting a country without a past or a distinctive culture. In an era in which all countries spend vast resources on presenting favorable images before the world, Persia, on the contrary, has seen to it that it is deprived of all recognition of its rich history.
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There are many Iranians in the West who prefer “Persia” and “Persian” as the English names for the country and nationality, similar to the usage of La Perse/persan in French. According to Hooman Majd, the popularity of the term “Persia” among the Persian diaspora stems from the fact that “‘Persia’ connotes a glorious past they would like to be identified with, while ‘Iran’ … says nothing to the world but Islamic fundamentalism.”