It was on the Persian New Year of 21 March 1935 that Reza Shah announced that he was formally changing his country’s name from ‘Persia’ to ‘Iran’. Persia, he felt, was too colonial, oriental, and demode.
It was linked in people’s mind with endless wars and crippling debt accumulated by the gross mismanagement of his predecessors, the Qajars. For him, ‘Persia’ spoke of the past, not of the future.
Reza Shah was an impassioned, forward-looking reformer who wanted Iran to catch up with the modern world. He felt that it lagged behind in practically all areas. It needed a facelift - and a new name.
The ascent of Reza Shah
The shah himself was semi-illiterate. Born into obscurity and raised as an orphan, he grew up in poverty before joining the military and rising through its ranks, helped by an iron will and a sense of ambition that knew no bounds.
Finally, at the head of the Persian Cossack Regiment, one of Iran’s only professional military outfits, he marched on Tehran and staged a coup d'état in 1921. It was largely bloodless, since his men were met with little resistance.
He deposed the Qajar shah, imposed his own prime minister, and named himself head of the army and minister for war. In 1925, he became shah himself, then embarked on a major programme of reform, including big infrastructure projects.
He built a railway linking the Caspian Sea to the Arabian Gulf, set up Iran’s first radio station, and established its first museum. He hosted the first women’s congress in Tehran in 1932, then two years later, he founded the University of Tehran, and made education compulsory for both boys and girls.
He excavated ancient cities like Persia’s old capital Persepolis and sent thousands of young Iranians to study abroad, mainly in the United States and Europe, on state scholarships.
Not just a name change
So conscious was he about public image that it became a crime to take photos of anything that looked backward in Iran, like ghettos, camels, and the chador.
Following the country’s 1935 name-change, he issued one of Iran’s most controversial rulings: the Kashf-e hijab, a January 1936 decree banning the headscarf and chador, which put him at odds with the mullahs.