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Iran in the Middle East - “An Accident of Geography”? Iranian Interactions with a Contested Term of Regional Ascription during the 20th Century

Panel XII-11, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The term “Middle East”, used in both the scholarly and political contexts, is traditionally attributed to the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who used it in an article written for the National Review magazine in September 1902. From that moment onward, the term was always debated and contested. However, it was arguably the thorough and prolonged impact of the publication of Edward Said's polemical book Orientalism in 1978 that rendered the use of this notion problematic for scholars based in the West (Amanat, Bonine, Gasper, eds, 2012). But what about the reactions to this term from within the space to which it has usually been applied, namely a vast area stretching from Mauritania in the West, through the Maghreb, Egypt and the Levant, to the eastern borders of Iran and even Afghanistan? In 1878, the khedive Ismail Pasha was already defying the geographical ascription imposed on his country by the Great Powers when he declared, during a major reorganisation of his government, that Egypt was now a European country (Goldschmidt, 2008). This was echoed, about a century later, by another monarch in the region, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, when, in a conversation with the British ambassador, he said that the labelling of Iran as a Middle Eastern country was a mere “accident of geography” and that the Iranians were “members of the European family” (Zia-Ebrahimi, 2011). Given that scholars have also questioned whether Iran ought to be conceived of as belonging to the Middle East – even though the very invention of the term in 1902 by Mahan was precisely linked to a reflection on the strategic importance of Iran – this panel brings together four papers that will explore Iranian attitudes and reactions to the conception of Iran as part of the Middle East during the twentieth century. The panellists’ case studies analyse how Iranian thinkers, foreign policy practitioners, and politicians of the Pahlavi era comprehended this regional affiliation in order to then either claim or reject its pertinence for Iran often foregrounding alternatives, such as “Asia” but also “the East”, “the Muslim World”, “the Shi’a Crescent”, and others. Thus, by discussing Iranian interactions with the highly contested term “Middle East” throughout the 20th century, this panel intends to make a historically informed contribution to a very contemporary debate.
  • On 3 November 1955, Iran became a member of a regional military alliance that also included Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. This alliance came to be referred to as the Baghdad Pact, yet from its inception in early 1955 and until 1959, when Abd al-Karim Qasim’s Iraq opted out, the pact was officially styled the ‘Middle East Treaty Organization (METO)’. The Iranian government’s decision to join this ostensibly Middle Eastern pact and thereby, at least tacitly, conceiving of Iran as a Middle Eastern country, did not pass without challenge. It caused significant public debate, including in the Majles, the Iranian parliament, where strong opposition to Iran’s joining of this alliance was voiced. Drawing on a range of various primary sources in different languages, including archival documents, Iranian parliamentary proceedings, the contemporary Iranian press, as well as memoirs, diaries and oral history sources, this paper traces the debate around Iran’s joining of the Baghdad Pact as a case study of how Iranian thinkers, politicians, and foreign policymakers of the Pahlavi period grappled with the Middle East, both as a geo-political notion as such, and in terms of the question of whether Iran was part of it or not. This particular aspect of Iran’s adherence to the Baghdad Pact has not received virtually any attention in the related scholarly literature so far (see e.g., Kent 2020, Jasse, 2006, Yesilbursa, 2005 et Persson, 1998). Therefore, this paper analyses this episode with reference to the question of the impact of the Cold War on the region (and vice-versa) but also by embedding it within the context of the highly complex and far from straightforward evolution of Iranian foreign policy between 1953 and 1961, i.e., during the crucial period between the overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the beginning of the premiership of Ali Amini.
  • The period that has come to be known as Iran’s 'long 1970s' (Alvandi, ed., 2018) was characterised by an unprecedented economic boom that went hand in hand with the Pahlavi regime’s increasing emphasis on Iran’s political and ideological equidistance from the two opposing camps of the Cold War. These developments profoundly influenced the way Iran’s regional and international integration was conceived of. The literature on the period reflects these trends, however, it has so far mostly focused on Iran's relations with Western powers, highlighting in particular the emergence of an 'anti-western Occidentalism' (Shakibi, 2020). The question of Iran's sense of belonging to a regional entity remains much less explored, and little attention has been paid to the place of the Middle East in late Pahlavi conceptualisations of Iran’s spatial emplacement. The present paper addresses this gap in the existing scholarship by taking as its starting point the observation that the Pahlavi monarchy used the term ‘Middle East’ in a rather inconsistent, if not contradictory manner, sometimes conceiving of Iran as belonging to the Middle East, sometimes flatly rejecting the very use of the term (Zia-Ebrahimi, 2011). In order to comprehend these contradictions, the paper uses an analytical framework that combines hermeneutics with critical discourse analysis (CDA) to illuminate the variations in the meaning and uses of the term. In so doing, the paper traces the gradual occurrence of a discursive shift during the period under review: little by little, the preoccupation with whether or not Iran is part of the Middle East gives way to considerations of a belonging to other, wider politico-spatial entities such as the Asian continent or the 'Third World'. Based upon this, the paper shall then analyse the ways in which this discursive shift was interrelated with the political realities of the period, both at the level of Iran’s international relations and in regards of domestic affairs. Being situated at the intersection of two distinct fields, namely intellectual and IR history, this paper draws on various primary sources such as newspapers, official Iranian publications as well as diplomatic documents, to explore how the very notion of Iran’s being part of a particular regional entity shaped the foreign policy of the Pahlavi regime during the 1970s, while also becoming a key element of the monarchy’s attempts at grounding itself within a well-defined ideological framework.
  • The differences that existed between Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ali Amini, prime minister between May 1961 and July 1962, over questions of domestic policy have been well analyzed (see e.g. Willcocks, 2016 and Ansari, 2001), however the study of French diplomatic documents as well as of a variety of other primary sources in Persian shows that the issue of Iran's regional integration also played a role in the power struggle between the monarch and his energetic premier. The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958, seemed to make the future of Mohammad Reza Shah's regime uncertain but also led to a regional surge in state building as well as an increased interest in international institutions and regional cooperation in the context of the Cold War (Schayegh, 2013). The future of the Iranian monarchy came to be seen as even more uncertain as a major crisis developped inside Iran in the early 1960s, during which the shah’s power was temporarily curtailed. This allowed Ali Amini to act more independently than previous prime ministers. When Ali Amini publicly announced his political program in May 1961, he unambiguously stated that his external policy would be framed by abiding by the UN charter and international treaties as well as by the pursuit of good relations with all neighbouring countries (Amini, 2009). This approach to a regional policy stood in stark contrast to the shah's vision, in which Iran was meant to be the most important western-aligned power in the region while emphasizing its own presumably Aryan and even Western heritage as opposed to any ties that might link it to the Middle East (Zia-Ebrahimi, 2011, Alvandi 2014). Furthermore, French sources reveal that Amini believed that the establishment of a Middle Eastern common market, modelled on the European Economic Community, into which Iran was to be integrated, would be a crucial step for stabilising the Middle East. Amini even implied that this institution should later evolve into a federation of Arab states, which suggests that he was less concerned with any potential threat to Iran from pan-Arabism than other Iranian policy-makers at the time, including most notably the Iranian monarch (Reisinezhad, 2018). By exploring this hitherto unstudied point of contention between Prime Minister Ali Amini and Mohammad Reza Shah, this paper aims at enriching our understanding of the complex question of how Iranians conceived of their country’s spatial and regional affiliations during the twentieth century.
  • 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.