The Dream—or Nightmare—of “Greater Iran”

Map of Greater Iran from the Arab AtlasWhen the term “greater” is attached to a country name, it usually indicates that certain extreme nationalists want the boundaries of the state to expand. The Wikipedia article on “Greater Iran” is one exception, framing the issue on cultural and historical grounds without reference to geopolitical ambition. Still, links in the article lead to sites promoting “Pan-Iranism,” defined as “an ideology that advocates solidarity and reunification of Iranian peoples living in the Iranian plateau and other regions that have significant Iranian cultural influence.” Pan-Iranists, it turns out, ardently hope to create a politically unified “Greater Iran.”

Map of Greater Iran from Pan-Iranist VideoThese aspirations are spelled out in the webpages of the Pan Iranist Party of Iran. Pan-Iranists see modern Iran as a rump state, accounting for less than half of the nation’s rightful people and territory. (The slash on the group’s flag is said to represent “mourning for the lost lands of Iran.”) As depicted in a video associated with the movement, Greater Iran includes almost 200 million people: all those living in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as parts of Turkey, Russia (North Ossetia), Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and China. Most members of the non-Persian groups slated for inclusion in such an expanded state would likely see the scheme as a mad dream of Iranian imperialism.

Flag of the Pan-Iranist Party of IranThe Greater Iran propounded by the Pan-Iranist Party is essentially secular. As the Party’s website specifies, “requests for membership … are welcomed” by all people of conceivably Iranian heritage, regardless of faith; the largely Christian Georgians and Ossetians receive specific mention. The inclusion of the Georgians shows that Greater Iran is not conceived here in linguistic terms, although the Iranian language family is often mentioned. The key is historical and cultural influence, even if occasional phrases like “all other Iranic ethnics” imply a degree of ethnic unity.

But if “Greater Iran” usually has secular-nationalist roots, the concept has also been taken up by some members of Iran’s clerical leadership. LiveLeak reported in 2010 that Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, Secretary-General of Hezbollah-Iran, forwarded a plan for “reestablishing” a “Greater Iran,” encompassing all territories of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Kharrazi’s scheme is grounded both in a conviction of Persian cultural supremacy, especially over the Arabs, and in Shia eschatology. According to the memo, his plan was designed to anticipate the “establishment of global government led by the Mahdi,” the messiah-like “hidden Imam” of Shiite end-of-days doctrine.  According to an article from the Jerusalem Post, Kharrazi expressly called for the destruction not only of Israel, but also of “Shi’ite Iran’s other regional adversaries, … [singling] out secular Arab nationalists—as well as followers of the austere version of Sunni Islam practiced primarily in Saudi Arabia that is known as Wahabism.”

Maps of Greater Iran from Iran Defence.Net “Greater Iran” is not imagined consistently, as can be seen in the images to the left. IranDefence.Net has posted detailed discussions of the issue, with a welter of maps. The maximal versions encompass all areas ever ruled by the ancient Persian Empire—and then some. As a political or religious scheme, such expansive pan-Iranism does not rest on a firm foundation. But when limited to cultural and historical analysis, Greater Iran—or Greater Persia—can be a useful concept. Deep Iranian cultural influence does indeed extend well beyond Iran into both Central Asia and the Caucasus. Historically, the Persian linguistic sphere has extended even farther to the east than is indicated on the most extravagant maps of Greater Iran. The Moghul Empire of India, for example, maintained Persian as its official language throughout its history.

The map of Greater Persia found in the Arab Atlas is one of the better depictions of this cultural realm. The map’s portrayal of the current Persian-speaking area within the larger Persian cultural sphere is especially helpful. Whereas most cartographers obscure the contemporary extent of Persian (Farsi), this map accurately shows it extending from interior Iran across northern Afghanistan, through most of Tajikistan, and well into Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, few maps capture this state of affairs accurately. The Soviet insistence on calling the language of Central Asian Persians “Tajik,” along with the government of Afghanistan’s 1964 decree that the same language be called “Dari,” has contributed to a widespread cartographic minimization of what is in fact a vast Persian linguistic sphere. Political considerations, in other words, have tended to trump cultural realities.

Pasa Map of Iranian PeopleInterestingly, a few Greater Iranian sites themselves diminish the extent of the Persian linguistic sphere. The map of “Iranian Peoples” posted on the Parsa website, for example, essentially outlines the area in which people speak Iranian languages today, plus a few Turkic groups heavily influenced by Persian culture and Iranian political structures. Yet the map leaves out central Afghanistan—an area inhabited by the Persian-speaking Hazaras, a Shiite people linked to Iran on religious as well as linguistic grounds. The Harazas were excluded, it turns out, on racial grounds. Parsa seeks to define Iranians as a genetic stock, largely based on physical appearance. As the Hazaras are generally of East Asian physical appearance, they are read out of Greater Persian by certain ultra-nationalists.

The Dream—or Nightmare—of “Greater Iran” Read More »