The terms “Persian” and “Iranian” are often used interchangeably, and many people argue that they are synonyms; others, however, draw a distinction to the effect that to be Persian is a claim to a certain ethnicity, while to be Iranian is a claim to a particular nationality. As such a person could be one without necessarily also being the other, though this is a matter of some debate. The modern country of Iran sits within the boundaries of what was once the ancient kingdom of Persia. That kingdom also extended into what are now other countries, too, however, including Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Most people who consider themselves Persian use the term as a description of their ethnic background, and the majority of these people are also Iranian — but not always.
Difference Between Ethnicity and Nationality
In most cases the word “Persia” today means Iran, because the country of Iran formed over the heart of the ancient Persian empire and most of its original citizens were inhabitants of that kingdom. Somewhat confusingly, however, the designations “Persian” and “Iranian” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Modern Iran is a country of many different ethnic and tribal groups. People who identify as Persian make up the majority, but they are joined by significant numbers of Azeri, Gilaki, and Kurdish people, too. All are citizens of Iran and thus Iranians, but only some can trace their lineage to Persia.
A lot of this depends, at least in part, on perception. People who think about Iran as essentially modern Persia tend to consider all residents to be Persians regardless of their ethnic affiliations. The country’s official language is Persian, sometimes also called Farsi. In most cases the distinction is cultural.
Former Kingdom of Persia
Understanding the distinction is sometimes easier with a review of the region’s history. Starting in 600 B.C., Greek politicians called the land within Cyrus the Great’s empire “Persis.” This name was derived from the word “Pars,” which was the name of the people over whom Cyrus the Great ruled. This group of people lived on the land that now exists as the province of Fars in Iran.
Over many hundreds of years, Persis was turned into “Persia.” This remained as the official name for the country until 1935. Many people within the country, however, have called it Iran and referred to its people as “Iranians” since the period of Sassanid rule, which lasted from 226 to 651 A.D. During that time, many individuals with Aryan features lived within the area. “Iran,” in fact, means “land of the Aryans,” and many of the original settlers had Indo-European roots. People who consider themselves ethnically Persian typically share this background.
Renaming and Government Reformation
Government leaders changed the country’s “official” name to Iran in 1935, though this move was protested by many. After this point all citizens were told to consider themselves Iranians and to incorporate the new name into their common and official speech and documents. Politically this move was largely a success, though on a cultural level the Persian name persisted.
Many scholars deeply protested these changes, too, and a group of them convinced the government in 1959 that the terms “Persia” and “Iran” should be used interchangeably. Books printed between 1935 and 1959 are unlikely to include the term “Persian,” as “Iranian” was the only accepted term for residents of the country during those years. Texts printed prior to 1935, however, will typically only use the term “Persian.”
Residents aren’t as likely to be called Persian after the revolution of 1979, which deposed the country’s monarchy and instituted an Islamic Republic government. The last king, considered by many to be the final Persian monarch, fled the country in exile. Some people today consider the term “Persian” to be an anachronism that recalls the former days of monarchy, and from a purely political standpoint this is often accepted. Looking at the issue culturally, though, the term often still has value and relevant meaning.