Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”: is Iran based on ethnonationalism?

Competing views on the origins of nations have been extensively used to analyze the formation of an Iranian identity and the roots of Iranian nationalism. Three main schools of thought can be distinguished as answers to the question on the origins of the nation.[1] The first perspective can be summed as the idea that nations are natural elements in history since the “immemorial”. The second theory, modernist or post-modernist, views the nation as a modern construct. Finally, the third approach, recognizes that the nation as a “civic” concept is indeed a product of modernity that cannot be applied to pre-modern times but at the same time strongly opposes the post-modernist and modernist view that the nation is completely detached to its historical past and is just constructed or imagined.[2]

Benedict Anderson, in his canonical work, defined the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.[3] This analysis of the nation, as a modern construct, is opposed to the concept of community in its proper sense, such as the village, where face-to-face contact between people made it “genuine”. This perspective, which can be described as post-modernist or modernist, rejects the idea of nationalism as primordially present in a certain people living within the boundaries of a “state”.[4]

This essay will argue that Iran does not fit Anderson’s definition of an ‘imagined community’ because the idea of Iranian identity when Iran “embarked” the phase of nation building was well rooted in a shared historical past and cultural consciousness; therefore it was not an artificial construct. However, this identity was turned by the ruling elites of the 20th century (the Pahlavi dynasty and a small group of ultra nationalist monarchists) into a new form of ethno-nationalism. In essence, the last two shahs of Iran used the historical and shared roots of the Iranian diverse people to forge a new identity that was Persian rather than Iranian, and that was used to create an ethnically homogenous nation-state “purified” from the influence of minorities and Islam but loyal to the dynasty and the idea of a strong modern nation.

From the turn of the 20th century onwards, nationalism in the Middle East was seen as an essential prerequisite for modernisation.[5] When the pre-modern Iranian society “entered” the age of nation building, the search for a new national identity was based on the pre-existing historical memories, territorial ties and shared traditions.[6] In this encounter with the outside forces that were driving nationalism in the outside world, the members of Persian literati, who transmitted the concept of an Iranian identity since the Sasanid era, formed groups of intellectuals with a new growing audience. This Intellectual development was not marked by a new wave of ideas and novel concepts; on the contrary, the exposition of prominent intellectuals to Western ideas, changed the conception and the way previous traditional concepts were expressed and interpreted in relation to modernity.[7] In other words, the awareness of a mythical past shared by Iranian people became more popular and what had been for centuries a cultural and historical consciousness was gradually being transformed into the modern conception of nationality and national identity.[8]

In 20th century Iran, tribal ties and ethno-linguistic affiliation competed with national identity. However, despite of these diverse identities, “a deeply rooted cultural awareness and a historical consciousness of continuity in a long and distinctive history of the country have served as a strong cohesive force to help overcome various divisive currents”.[9] The common denominators of this multipolar form of nationalism were the binding forces among the people of Iran that existed for centuries and that could provide a sense of continuity.[10] As a matter of fact the historical notion of Iran was rooted in the mythical dynasties of Keyanyan and Pishdadian and the idea of Iran at the center of the universe, all included in a sacred notion of Iran by the Sasanians.[11] This image remained part of the historical memory and cultural consciousness of Iranians for almost two millennia, transmitted by the Shahnameh and by folk tales[12] and celebrated in Persian poetry and oral literature[13] – preserved in small diverse communities but shared on a big scale. This holistic tradition of the people living in the Iranian plateau may not resemble the modern idea of national history related to the concept of the “civic nation” but is historically rooted and not artificially constructed.

The various forms of Iranian nationalism that emerged in this period and on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 have been extensively used in political discourse, both to legitimize policies and to confront oppositional forces.[14] However, before the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1924 by Reza Shah, who can be considered as the “creator” of new form of ethno-nationalism, nationalism in Iran, as showed in the previous paragraphs, was not related to belonging to a unique ethnic or linguistic group. On the contrary, the concept emerged in opposition to the intrusion and growing influence of foreign powers during the Qajar period, when for the first time a united front opposed imperialism and advocated for the complete sovereignty of Iran. These first national sentiments were rooted in a diverse but shared cultural heritage that fused Islamic, Safavid, Zoroastrian and tribal elements but was not exemplified by a single ethno-linguistic group, rather it was intrinsic in people’s tradition but experienced in many different ways.

Following the “historicizing” approach, this modern form of Iranian identity and nationalism that gradually emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries from the intellectual strata of the population, was extensively connected to historical memories, in which the Persian heritage was an important tie but not the prerogative or the hegemonic force. On the other hand, as Bert Fragner points out, the transformation of these historically rooted national sentiments on the base of a prevailing “Persian hegemony” in a specific period in the long history of Iran (middle ages) was used to construct a new ethno-national identity.[15]

The rise to power of Reza Shah and the consequent development of a politically driven form of ethno-nationalism was fomented by the need of a strong centralized state in the aftermath of World War I, when Iran was almost disappearing as an independent entity.[16] The self-proclaimed title of “national leader” that Reza Khan gave himself was coupled with his military victories on the ground. As a matter of fact, Reza Shah successfully repressed regional revolts and established internal stability.[17] Most politically aware Iranians praised his suppression of tribes as a way to prevent future uprisings, especially the reformist intellectuals who supported the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, mainly because he appeared as a strong figure able to fill the power vacuum that the war and the intrusion of foreign powers generated.[18] After the military campaign that resulted in the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Khan’s coronation as Reza Shah clearly showed the romantic nature of his nationalistic project. In an imitation of Napoleon, he gloriously placed on his own head the crown taken from the hands of the high clergyman, a symbolic action that paved the way for two defining attitudes of his nationalistic vision: the promise to restore Iranian’s glorious pre-Islamic past in the name of the “pure Iranian race” (Persian) and the restriction of the clergy’s power.[19] Reza Shah was then seen by Iranian nationalists (here used to identify the modernising forces that emerged during the Constitutional Revolution) from all major political parties as the realization of their democratic and reformist hopes for the future of Iran; however, these sentiments were not related to the romantic and non inclusive form of ethno-nationalism that the authoritarian regime of the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty had projected for Iran.

During the regime of Reza Shah (1925-1941), the centralization of the state was carried out through an empowered and efficient military rule. The main goal was to turn Iran into a modern westernized superpower that could compete with Europe and the US. Economically, oil was the main state revenue and the main influencing force of foreign policy. From a cultural and religious point of view, the main goal of the regime was a secularisation of state institutions that could be use as means for the diffusion of a renew ethno-national identity, the Persian identity. In this sense, the authoritative measures of the regime penetrated in people’s life by imposing cultural and social practices that alienated and dislocated many strata of the population. The teaching of the Qur’an, which had been at the base of education for centuries, was forbidden in schools; similarly, the Muslim calendar was replaced with the Persian solar calendar.[20] Moreover, Zoroastrian precepts were used to replace many Islamic practices that were fundamental components of the Iranian cultural heritage and most importantly of ordinary people community life.[21] From a linguistic point of view, Farsi was imposed as the national language of Iran and other languages were banned. Furthermore, small aspects of everyday life were controlled to the extent that traditional and tribal dress that represented the affiliation to small communities was banned to repress the diversity of the country. Tribal groups were forced to settle to eradicate nomadism, considered in opposition with the national project itself, and minorities were also persecuted.

Nationalism during the reign of Reza Shah was conceived and carried out as a state mission, a defined project to be imposed to Iranian people. The state, in this sense, became an instrument of social engineering. Mythmaking became central in this process, which aimed to “persianise” Iran by negating Arab, Kurdish, Turkic and other ethnicities’ contribution to the nation’s history, especially emphasising on a glorious pre-Islamic narrative. Moreover, the role of religion as a distinctive and unitary force of society and the small communities that constituted it was diminished. The creation of a nation based on the ethnic superiority and hegemony of one specific group, in this case the Persians, was perpetrated by enforcing Farsi as a national language and by the marginalisation and persecution of other ethno-linguistic groups. This work of social engineering and distortion of the past for the creation of a national homogeneous community that identify itself in a precise set of practices, national ceremonies and linguistic and literature tradition, is a form of ethno-nationalism that turned the well rooted premises of new-born Iranian nationalism in an artificially constructed political ideology imposed to the people.

Reza Shah was replaced by his son Mohamed Reza in 1941 by the American, Soviet and British forces.[22] In the 1960s, after widespread revolts were crushed in Teheran, renewed US support, increased state bureaucracy and the use of repressive measures to control opposition, such as the SAVAK (secret police), allowed the shah’s regime to extend its control to other areas of society in both rural and urban areas.[23] This renewed oppressive control of the state on people’s life was implemented with the creation of trade unions that were run by the government as well as the foundation of the Rastakhiz Party that all Iranian bureaucrats and notable people were forced to join.[24] The oppressiveness of the regime and the impositions that the ethno-nationalistic vision that the Pahlavi carried out generated discontent, and social and political alienation that from the early 1970s onwards posed the basis for the 1979 Islamic Revolution to succeed. In this respect, it could be argued that the alienation and malaise provoked by the forced implementation of the ethno-national impositions by Reza and Mohamed Reza Shahs, shows the authenticity of the Iranian identity in its primordial form. As a matter of fact, in the course of the 20th century, the majority of Iranian people rejected the idea of a new identity formulated and imposed by the ruling elites because they were strongly attached to their past and to the cultural and historical consciousness that helped preserve it for centuries as an eclectic but shared identity.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 represented the failure of the secular ethno-nationalistic project of the Pahlavi. The repression of the minorities and the diminishing of the role of Islam created the fertile ground for a new form of popular nationalism carried out in the name of Islam to succeed. When Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the leader of the religious movement that opposed the Shah, in his campaign to mobilize the masses, he called to a populist, “third-worldist” revolution. His strategy involved the mobilization of all the groups opposing the regime “to rise up against an unjust and Godless tyranny […] this same appeal constituted the core of a species of popular nationalism that saw Islam ‘as the identifying emblem of the common people against the alien (and pro-western) social spheres in their own country which had excluded and subordinated them”.[25] In this respect, the popular mobilizations of the 1970s, shows how the ethno- national project failed to incorporate the population and to create a modern sense of national identity based on the historical consciousness present in the Iranian community. Rather, being it a mere tool for political control and social engineering, it fomented the need for a revitalization of Islam as a central part of people’s life, as it had been for centuries.

As this essay has shown, the Iranian nation is not an “imagined community” because, as exposed in the third approach explained in the introduction of the paper, an Iranian identity was culturally and historically rooted in the people of Iran before the modern concepts of nation, nationhood and citizenship forged the idea of nationalism itself in the 19th and 20th century. Ethno-nationalism, on the contrary, was an artificially created ideal, used by the ruling class to enforce its rule and to forge a new homogenous national identity.

[1] Ashraf, Ahmad, (2006) “IRANIAN IDENTITY – i. PERSPECTIVES”, Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. XIII, Fasc. 5, pp. 501-504; available online at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1991. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, p.6.

[4] Ashraf, “IRANIAN IDENTITY – i., pp. 501-504.

[5] Choueiri, Youssef M. 2005. A Companion To The History Of The Middle East. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, p.323.

[6] Ashraf, Ahmad, (2006) “IRANIAN IDENTITY – iv. 19TH-20TH CENTURIES”, Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. XIII, Fasc. 5, pp. 522-530; available online at

[7] Keddie, Nikki R. 1962. ‘Religion And Irreligion In Early Iranian Nationalism’. Comp. Stud. Soc. Hist. 4 (03), p.287-288.

[8] Ashraf, Ahmad. 1993. ‘The Crisis Of National And Ethnic Identities In Contemporary Iran’. Iranian Studies 26 (1-2): 159-164, p.160.

[9] Ashraf, “IRANIAN IDENTITY – iv., pp.522-530.

[10] Choueiri, A Companion To The History Of The Middle East, p.320.

[11] Ashraf, ‘The Crisis Of National And Ethnic Identities In Contemporary Iran’., p.160.

[12] Ibid, p.160

[13] Ashraf, “IRANIAN IDENTITY – iv”, pp.522-530.

[14] Choueiri, A Companion To The History Of The Middle East, p.320.

[15] Ashraf, “IRANIAN IDENTITY – i., pp. 501-504.

[16] Ghods, M. Reza. 1991. ‘Iranian Nationalism And Reza Shah’. Middle Eastern Studies 27 (1), pp.36-7.

[17] Ibid., p.38.

[18] Ibid., p.39.

[19] Ibid., p.43

[20] Choueiri, A Companion To The History Of The Middle East, p.324.

[21] Ibid., p.324.

[22] Owen, Roger. 2000. State, Power, And Politics In The Making Of The Modern Middle East. London: Routledge, p.91.

[23] Ibid., p.93

[24] Ibid., p.93

[25] Owen, State, Power, And Politics In The Making Of The Modern Middle East, p.94.


  • Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1991. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
  • Ashraf, Ahmad. 1993. ‘The Crisis Of National And Ethnic Identities In Contemporary Iran’. Iranian Studies 26 (1-2): 159-164.
  • Choueiri, Youssef M. 2005. A Companion To The History Of The Middle East. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub: 320-332.
  • Ghods, M. Reza. 1991. ‘Iranian Nationalism And Reza Shah’. Middle Eastern Studies 27 (1): 35-45.
  • Hobsbawm, E. J. 2012. Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Keddie, Nikki R. 1962. ‘Religion And Irreligion In Early Iranian Nationalism’. Stud. Soc. Hist. 4 (03): 265-95.
  • Owen, Roger. 2000. State, Power, And Politics In The Making Of The Modern Middle East. London: Routledge: 84-102.


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