“Neither East nor West” was an important declaration of the Islamic Republic’s self-definition in the context of the Cold War. In addition to a strong body of literature that elucidates Iran’s encounters with the “West,” recent scholarship has explored how the “East,” or the Soviet Union, presented an alternative vision of modernity to many Iranians. But “East” did not always mean the Soviet Union. As Iranian intellectuals internalized the East/West dichotomy toward the end of the nineteenth century, “East” acquired multiple meanings.
Using Persian treatises, memoirs, press sources, and official publications, this paper examines the malleable ideas of the “East” expressed in Iranian writings from the end of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. It identifies three components that expanded and contracted the contours of the East: geography, civilization, and decolonization. During the heyday of pan-Islamic movements at the turn of the twentieth century, reflecting the rise of civilizational discourse, the “East” typically meant the Islamic East, especially the Ottoman Empire, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Following the emergence of pan-Asianism at the turn of the twentieth century, “East” also came to mean “Asia,” including non-Islamic East Asia, especially the rise imperial power of Japan. In the age of decolonization following WWII, the meaning of the “East” blended with that of Afro-Asia, while excluding Japan due to its imperial past. This multiplicity of meanings allowed Iranians to embrace various “Eastern” transnational solidarities at different historical moments to overcome Western dominance, while remaining deeply cognizant of their difference from other “Eastern” peoples. By tracing these shifts in the ideas of the East, this paper argues that Iran’s national self was defined not just in relation to the West, the Soviet Union, and Iran’s immediate neighbors such as Arab states, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Rather, Iranians constantly situated themselves globally, imagining solidarity with multiple “East”s.
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