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Country name calling: the case of Iran vs. Persia.

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Publication: Focus on Geography
Publication Date: 22-MAR-07
Delivery: Immediate Online Access
Author: Kamiar, M.

Article Excerpt

Iran is located between two giant oil fields in and around the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. More importantly, it has common borders with two nuclear powers, Russia and Pakistan, and is not far from three others, China, India, and Israel. It is also considered to be the world's oldest, largest, most powerful empire. Unfortunately, as a result of some twists and turns during its long history, even with its important location and powerful culture, the country is often mistakenly referred to as Persia instead of Iran.

Many European colonial administrators, seeing themselves as people with superior civilization, never bothered to learn the correct names of the places where their subjects lived. Iran provides an excellent example. While Westerners perhaps knew that the country had always been called Iran, due to geographical illiteracy and lack of respect a "double vision" of the name of the country was created and has continued to the present day.

"Inexactitude" was the word chosen to explain the mistaken use of "Persia" instead of the correct "Iran" in a memorandum to Westerners circulated by the government of Iran in 1935. Unfortunately, today the general public and even some scholars continue to repeat this mistake. This article tracks the usage history of the words, "Iran" and "Persia" in order to clarify the sources of confusion over these two names. It will also answer several questions: What is the original, correct name of the country? What is the origin of the word Persia? What are the associations between the two names of this important country? And, why do many scholars continue calling Iran by an "inexact" name and thus repeat a small, innocent historical mistake?

Iran's Geo-Political Significance

Iran is the second largest country in land, after Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East. It is six times larger than Great Britain and about three times the size of France. In addition to Egypt and Turkey, Iran is the only other nation whose population has reached 70 million in Southwest Asia and North Africa.

Iran's Cyrus the Great, first emperor of one of the world's first empires, freed the Jews in captivity in Babylon and paid them to go back to Israel to rebuild their temple, thereby aiding in their survival and growth. Over the millennia, the country has made many other major contributions to human civilization. Due to the weakness of its central government and European colonial rivalry, in recent centuries this ancient country was reduced to a mere semi colony of the British.

Straddled between two major oil fields, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, Iran controls a strategic corridor between these two bodies of water and the region's sources of oil. The Russians have always wanted access to those warm waters. However, by the time Middle Eastern oil was first discovered in Iran in 1908, the Persian Gulf--with the largest amount of proven oil reserves in the world--had become a British-dominated lake. Today's up-and-coming oil fields in the former Soviet Azerbaijan, in and around the Caspian Sea, and in Central Asia are not far from Iran's northern borders.

Iran is the second largest oil producer, again after Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East. Its proven oil supply is one of the largest in the region, probably the third largest after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. More importantly, Iran has the largest amount of proven natural gas reserves in the Middle East. Although it is but the second largest in the world, after Russia, Iran's reserves are more significant, because Russian fields are located mostly in Siberia while Iranian reserves are very accessible to the world market.

A pivotal aspect of this country is its geographical location. The geographic location of Iran makes it one of the most accessible nations in the larger context of Europe and the Middle East. It was due to this accessibility that it was occupied by the conflicting forces during the two world wars. England's wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called Iran the "Bridge of Victory" after winning World War II.

Iran has captured global headline news repeatedly since the 1950s. First, it was Iran's struggle under Prime Minister Mosaddeq to nationalize its oil industry, which was contested by the British. The case was discussed in front of the World Court, and Iran won. Then came the Coup of 1953, sponsored by the British and the US, to overthrow an elected prime minister and install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power as Shah.

Today the world is dealing with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that transformed the country into an Islamic Republic, the ensuing American hostage crisis from 1979-1981, and the devastating war between Iran and Iraq that lasted from 1980-1988. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil, Western nations are dealing with Iran's footprints in global terrorism, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the quest for peace between Arab nations and Israel. Today, American forces occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations on Iran's flanks, while the Bush Administration discusses whether or not to invade Iran.

Friend or foe of the West, Iran is at the center of the world's geopolitically sensitive stage and will continue to play a pivotal role in global affairs. Even the present controversy over whether or not Iran is building an atomic bomb provides at least part of the country's populace with nationalistic joy and pride. Takeyh's 2004 article, "Iran Builds the Bomb," terms this situation "a source of national pride" for the general population of Iran.

It is suggested here that before nations threaten or trade with this country, it is first respectful to learn their correct indigenous name. Above, we have reviewed the importance of the role Iran plays on the world stage. Yet, it is one of the least understood nations globally. Due to its history, geographical location, political economy, and American involvement, this country should be called by its correct name. The great majority of Westerners, particularly Americans, do not know the difference between Persia and Iran.

The Advantages of Geographical Illiteracy

Many of the sources used for this article believe incorrectly that the country changed its name from Persia to Iran in 1935. There are several overlapping reasons that can explain this mistake and continuing confusion regarding Iran's name.

Geographical illiteracy is one important reason for this misunderstanding in the United States. According to numerous polls from the past twenty years, the majority of Americans are geographically illiterate. This lack of understanding is exploited by publishers and editors, many of whom are themselves apparently geographically illiterate.

For Iran, the use, or misuse, of the place-name Persia instead of Iran is so widespread as to seem deliberate. Perhaps the more positive connotations of Persia make it a buzzword to help sell books. Publishers may well regard it as a positive and complimentary term, when compared with Iran (especially when pronounced "Eye-Run"!); and its use helps to disassociate these books from the present negative realities attached to Iran.

Additionally, in recent decades, many Iranian students abroad have been ashamed to identify themselves as Iranians, perhaps not wanting to be associated with an apparently weak, poor, "backward" nation. In his book Iran: Between Two Revolutions (1982), Abrahamian quotes from a newspaper that, "whenever an Iranian traveling abroad is asked his nationality, he will give his locality--not the proud name of his country" (p. 123). Thus, taking advantage of geographical illiteracy, Iranians have perpetuated this placename confusion. Davis, in The Middle East for Dummies (2003), believes that many Iranians "think it's safer to say Persia than Iran" (p. 274). Hiding national identity became even more common after the American Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, and during the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, when many Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and even Sikhs from India were subject to suspicion and abuse in the US, based on their "foreign" appearance.

In her 1992 memoir, Daughter of Persia, translated into Persian and published...

NOTE: All illustrations and photos have been removed from this article.

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