The Difference Between 'Iranian' and 'Persian'

Iran, Tehran, visitors to the Roof of Iran Park above the city skyline
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

The terms Iranian and Persian are often used interchangeably to describe people from Iran, and some people think they mean the same thing, but is one term correct?  The terms  “Persian” and “Iranian” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Some people draw a distinction in that Persian relates to a particular ethnicity, and being Iranian is a claim to a certain nationality. Thus, a person could be one without being the other.

The Difference Between Persia and Iran

"Persia" was the official name of Iran in the Western world prior to 1935 when the country and vast surrounding lands were known as Persia (derived from the ancient kingdom of Parsa and the Persian empire). However, Persian people within their country shave long called it Iran. In 1935, the name Iran came into existence internationally and The Islamic Republic of Iran, with the boundaries in existence today, was founded in 1979 following the revolution.

Generally, “Persia” today refers to Iran because the country formed over the center of the ancient Persian empire and the majority of its original citizens inhabited that land. Modern Iran is comprised of a large number of different ethnic and tribal groups. People who identify as Persian account for the majority, but there are also large numbers of Azeri, Gilaki and Kurdish people, too. While all are citizens of Iran are Iranians, only some can identify their lineage in Persia.

The Revolution of 1979

Citizens weren't called Persian after the revolution of 1979, during which the country’s monarchy was deposed and an Islamic Republic government was put in place. The king, who was considered to be the last Persian monarch, fled the country in exile. Today, some consider “Persian” to be an old term that harkens back to the former days of monarchy, but the term still has cultural value and relevance.

Thus, Iran is used in the context of political discussion, while both Iran and Persia are used in cultural context.

Iran Population Composition

The CIA World Factbook for 2011 pins the ethnicity breakdown for Iran as follows:

  • 51 percent Persian
  • 24 percent Azeri
  • 8 percent Gilaki and Mazandaran
  • 7 percent Kurd, 3 percent Arab
  • 2 percent Lur
  • 2 percent Baloch
  • 2 percent Turkmen
  • 1 percent other

Official Language of Iran

The official language of the country is Persian, though locally it is called Farsi.

  • 58 percent of Iranians speak Persian or a Persian dialect
  • 26 percent speak Turkic and Turkic dialects
  • 9 percent speak Kurdish
  • Others speak Luri, Balochi, Arabic, Turkish and other languages

Are Persians Arabs?

Persians are not Arabs.

  1. Arab people live in the Arab world made up of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa including Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine and more. Persians live in Iran to the Indus River of Pakistan and to Turkey in the west.
  2. Arabs trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of tribes of Arabia from the Syrian Desert and Arabian Peninsula; Persians are a part of the Iranian inhabitants.
  1. Arabs speak Arabic; Persians speak Iranian languages and dialects.