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Which “East” for Iran? The 1937 Saʿdābād Pact and the Question of Iran’s Regional (Self-)Positioning
The Saʿdābād Pact, signed on 8 July 1937 in Tehran by representatives of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, was the culmination of a series of successive agreements and gradual rapprochements that started as early as the end of the First World War. This non-aggression pact is presented in the very few studies that pay attention to it as the result of Reza Shah's policy of good neighbourliness (Ramazani 1966, Mueller 2020), or as a contribution of the East to world peace (Fleury 1977). Given that the centre of gravity of the pact was located to west of Iran, the question begs to be asked of whether the Iranian government’s decision to join this pact, the first initiative of its kind in the region, meant that the Iranian elites conceived of their country as being part of the Middle East. This paper aims at providing an answer that is based on an analysis of a variety of primary sources such as the Iranian press of the period, the memoirs of Iranian statesmen, as well as Western official documents. It will show that in the 1930s, Iran’s political and intellectual elites – following in the continuity of a spatial conception that originated in the nineteenth century, was reinforced by the experience of Japan's victory over Russia in 1905, and claimed that Iran belonged to an oriental community as opposed to the colonising West – placed Iran in an “East” that was much larger than the Middle East even in its most extensive definition. It seems that this “East”, seen merely in a spatial perspective, overlaps with the boundaries of Asia; but on the conceptual level it does already foreshadow what would become the Afro-Asian bloc of the post-war era. It is in this context that the signing of the Saʿdābād Pact in July 1937 must be understood from an Iranian perspective. For the Iranian elites, this pact had an ideological dimension, namely, to place Iran at the forefront of a united East that stands up to the colonising West, is ready to demonstrate its moral superiority, and able to lead the World onto the path of peace.
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