How did Persia become Iran and why?

Last updated on April 6th, 2023 at 10:19 pm

Iran has one of the most exciting and unique histories of any country. Unfortunately, because of current events and recent military conflicts, most people don’t take the time to learn the history of Iran. Many people also need to realize that Iran used to go by a different name – Persia. 

Persia was significant throughout history for many reasons, and its name wasn’t changed to Iran until 1935. However, this name change was only done so that the Western World would start referring to the country by the same name as its inhabitants, as Iranians had been referring to their country as Iran since 1000 BC. 

You’ve come to the right place if you’re curious why Iran finally insisted on an official name change and how it all came about. The process is more interesting and political than you might think and could change how you see Iran as a country. 

1931 map of Iran

What Was Persia Before It Became Iran? 

Thanks to pop culture and movies like the Prince of Persia, most people know that Persia used to be a country in the Middle East. However, many of these people have yet to learn that the country they used to know as Persia is now known as Iran.

Before officially changing its name to Iran in 1935, Persia had a long and storied history that stretches back thousands of years. Most Biblical and religious scholars will recognize Persia from when it’s referenced in the Old Testament under the rule of Cyrus the Great. During Cyrus’s rule, Greece coined the name “Persia” to reference the “land ruled by Cyrus.” 

Persia, in turn, comes from the word “Parsa,” which was the name of the people group from which Cyrus emerged. So while Cyrus is a famous ruler and the first Persian king, he was followed by arguably the most famous Persian ruler of all time, Darius the Great. 

Cyrus and Darius were the first rulers of Persia and started what became known as the Achaemenid Empire. Following the Achaemenid Empire, Persia saw Sassanid, Safavid, Afsharid, and Qajar rulers. 

When Did Persia Become Iran? 

Iranians have been referring to their homeland as Iran, dating back as 1000 BC to the Zoroastrians. This means that, at least to the locals, Iran was known as Iran before it was ever known as Persia. During this time, Iran was also known as Arya, the Land of the Aryans. 

However, because Greece coined the term “Persia” around 550 AD, the Western world didn’t recognize Iran by its name until the 1900s. Finally, in 1935, the Iranian government officially requested that all Western countries refer to Persia by its preferred name Iran. While it took some time for the name change to set in, Persia has been known as Iran globally ever since.

It continues to be known as Iran, even though in 1959, the ruler of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, announced that people could refer to his country as either Iran or Persia. Additionally, despite another name change in 1979, when Iran officially became the Islamic Republic of Iran, people generally refer to the country simply as Iran. 

Who Was the Leader That Changed Persia to Iran? 

While many leaders and individuals were involved in changing Persia’s name to Iran, Reza Shah was the ruler at the time of the name change and the man who officially made the change. Mohsen Rais, the Iranian ambassador to Germany at the time, also receives a large amount of credit and is often thought of as the person who suggested an official name change to Iran. 

Why Did Persia Become Iran? 

There are several stories and rumors about why Persia finally insisted on being called Iran by outsiders. However, most people believe that the name change came directly from Iran’s relationship with Germany

In 1935, the Iranian ambassador to Germany was heavily influenced by Nazi-ruled Germany and their leader, Adolph Hitler. The goal of the name change to Iran was meant to signal the turning over of a new leaf when Reza Shah took over as the ruler. By officially changing Persia’s name to Iran or Arya, which means Land of the Aryans, it showed the world who Iran was aligned with. 

Prior to 1935, Iran was heavily influenced by Great Britain and the Soviet Union. These countries often interfered with Iranian affairs, and most Iranians blamed them for their economic and political problems. By changing their name to Iran, i.e., Land of the Aryans, it was a clear message to Great Britain and other Western nations that Iran wanted nothing to do with them. 

The name change started with an official correspondence requesting that all countries with whom Iran had diplomatic relations refer to them as Iran. From there, the name Iran was used in the news, media, and official publications until it became the common name for the country. 

Persia After Becoming Iran

At first, people were very hesitant to refer to Persia as Iran. Winston Churchill, for one, thought that Iran sounded too similar to their neighbor, Iraq, and feared that people would get the countries confused with one another. 

Additionally, Iran didn’t do a great job of informing the general public in Western countries that they were the country formerly known as Persia. As a result, most people thought Iran was an entirely new country formed out of the former Ottoman Empire. 

Finally, because of the connotation that Iran, Land of the Aryans, had on the western world, specifically Great Britain, many people were hesitant to use the new name. However, with enough time, use, and the re-establishment of British influence in Iran in 1941, people eventually got more comfortable with the term, and Persia became an archaic name. 

Iran in the 20th Century 

Since officially changing its name, Iran has seen almost nothing but political unrest, tensions, and revolutions. Reza Shah was the first ruler of Iran starting in 1935, but he only ruled until 1941, when Great Britain and other Western powers had him dethroned in favor of his son, Mohammed Shah Pahlavi. 

Pahlavi was friendly toward Great Britain and the US rather than Germany, whereas his father was more prone to German influences. Pahlavi ruled in Iran until 1951, when Iran held a legislative election and chose Mohammed Mossadegh as their leader. Mossadegh went on to nationalize the oil industry, much to the dismay of Great Britain. 

Together, Britain and the United States orchestrated the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 and reappointed Shah Pahlavi as the Prime Minister. He continued to rule as a pro-western official in Iran until 1979 and cultivated a great relationship with the US and Great Britain. 

That is, until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution, sometimes known as the Islamic Revolution, took place. During this time, Pahlavi was forcibly removed as prime minister in favor of a pro-Islam religious leader, Ayatolla Khomeini. Ever since, Iran has taken a strong anti-American stance, and Iranian American relations have never been the same. 

Iran and Oil 

For hundreds of years, when Iran was still Persia, the Western world cared very little about the Middle Eastern country. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when oil was discovered in Persia that the Soviet Union and Great Britain started to take notice. 

The United States joined the oil fray after WWII in 1953, when Iran decided to nationalize the oil industry. Because Great Britain had a huge stake in Iran’s oil industry, this put a huge hurt on their income. 

Great Britain then turned to the United States, and together, they orchestrated the overthrow of the prime minister who nationalized the oil industry and was able to reassert their rule. While religious and political factors also led to revolutions and tumultuous times in Iran, oil played a very significant role in their modern history. 

How Persia’s Name Change Affects the Modern World 

Whether you refer to Iran as Iran or Persia, you’re referring to the same land. However, the name you prefer will stir up different images and connotations in your head. For many, Persia is associated with a time of glamor, wealth, military exploits, and immense glory. Persia was known for its beautiful architecture and literature, emotional poetry, and decadent delicacies. 

Persia was also known for having a vast, powerful kingdom that was welcoming of all religions, cultures, and people groups. 

When people think of Iran, on the other hand, they think of Islamic terror groups, political unrest, and war. Since their official name change, the country has seen the forcible removal of most of its rulers, including the first four that came to power. Iran is also considered very anti-American, which has led to many Iranians preferring to refer to their homeland as Persia rather than Iran. 


Iran Chamber Society: When “Persia” became “Iran”

When Did Persia Become Iran and Why? | History Hit

History of Iran: From Persia to present | CBC News

Why Did Persia Become Iran? The History Behind the Name Change (

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