Despite the existence of various forms of primordial loyalties, a persistent sense of national consciousness or cultural distinctness was by no means absent from premodern Iran. It was sustained by a shared cultural heritage, and above all by the Persian language. From the sixteenth century it was reinforced by Shi˓ism. In the nineteenth century, Iran became an arena of rivalry between imperial Russia and the British Empire and lost territory, particularly to the Russians, in two humiliating wars. The ruling Qajar dynasty tried to maintain the county's precarious independence by exploiting Anglo-Russian rivalry. The growing influence and presence of Europeans in the country created resentment, while European ideas enabled the Iranian intelligentsia to articulate their diagnosis of the country's ills in nationalist terms. They came to view meaningful national self-determination as the prerequisite of national regeneration. The burgeoning nationalism manifested itself in the Constitutional Revolution from 1905 to 1911, which signaled a crucial stage in the transformation of the country into a nation-state and sought to create a modern state structure and establish institutions that embodied the will and sovereignty of the nation.
Following the coup of 1921, which eventually established the Pahlevi dynasty, nationalism became the guiding ideology of the centralizing state and grew as a result its educational and other modernizing policies. Manifestations of the prevailing nationalism ranged from the architecture of state buildings to the attempted purification of the Persian language. In the vein of its nineteenth-century predecessors, the nationalism of the era of Reza Shah Pahlevi invoked the pre-Islamic period of Iranian history as the locus of an authentic Iranian national identity and pride.
The outbreak of the Second World War and the Allied occupation of Iran in 1941 again underlined national vulnerability and enhanced foreign influence. Toward the end of the war, Iranian resistance to the Soviet demand for an oil concession in northern Iran resulted in the refusal of the Soviet government to withdraw its forces from the country and its encouragement of autonomy movements in Iranian Azarbaijan and Kurdistan. Iranian efforts and international pressure eventually resulted in the Soviet evacuation and the collapse of the autonomy movements.
Public attention then turned to the British oil concession in Iran and the preponderant position of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The failure of negotiations to extract from the company a greater share of the oil revenues for Iran strengthened a nationalist movement, led by the veteran parliamentarian Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had spearheaded the Iranian refusal to grant an oil concession to the Soviets. The movement resulted in the nationalization of the AIOC and the premiership of Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq pursued an anti-imperialist, civic nationalism that embraced liberal democratic values and was inclusive of all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity, language, or religion. He saw the nationalization of the oil industry as a legitimate move that expressed and strengthened Iranian national sovereignty, facilitated popular self-determination, and provided the needed resources for national regeneration and modernization.
The overthrow of Mosaddeq's government through the Anglo-American sponsored coup of August 1953 dealt a severe blow to Iranian civic nationalism. Iran abandoned her neutralism and, in 1955, formally joined a pro-Western alliance. Seeking to refute the charges of dependence on Anglo-American support, the shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlevi, advocated "positive" nationalism, in contrast to what he characterized as the "negative" nationalism of Mosaddeq. However, in 1964 the issue of granting immunities to the American forces stationed in Iran was seen by the opponents of the regime as a clear affront to Iranian national dignity and sovereignty.
Like his father, Muhammad Reza Shah promoted a cultural nationalism that tended to glorify Iran's pre-Islamic past. A notable instance of this was the replacement, in March 1976, of the Islamic calendar by an imperial one. This and similar measures antagonized the religious establishment and the pious middle classes, contributing to the revolution of 1978 and 1979 and the overthrow of the monarchy.
Following the revolution, despite the declared ecumenical objectives of the emerging Islamic regime, nationalism continued to be a major force in Iran's social, political, and cultural life, as well as its foreign policy. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988 saw the rekindling of strong nationalist sentiments, and the regime was gradually forced to come to terms with or even embrace the Iranian cultural nationalism that it had tried to suppress. Similarly, civic nationalist aspirations for popular sovereignty, political equality, and meaningful citizenship continued to grow.
Cottam, Richard. Nationalism in Iran; Updated through 1978. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh, 1979.
Kashani-Sabet, Firoozeh. Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1884–1946. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Vaziri, Mostafa, Iran as Imagined Nation: The Construction ofNational Identity. New York: Paragon House, 1993.