What is the Difference Between a Persian and an Iranian?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

The terms “Persian” and “Iranian” are often used interchangeably, and many people argue that they are synonyms; others, however, draw a distinction to the effect that to be Persian is a claim to a certain ethnicity, while to be Iranian is a claim to a particular nationality. As such a person could be one without necessarily also being the other, though this is a matter of some debate. The modern country of Iran sits within the boundaries of what was once the ancient kingdom of Persia. That kingdom also extended into what are now other countries, too, however, including Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Most people who consider themselves Persian use the term as a description of their ethnic background, and the majority of these people are also Iranian — but not always.

Persians come from the eastern regions of the Middle East.
Persians come from the eastern regions of the Middle East.

Difference Between Ethnicity and Nationality

In most cases the word “Persia” today means Iran, because the country of Iran formed over the heart of the ancient Persian empire and most of its original citizens were inhabitants of that kingdom. Somewhat confusingly, however, the designations “Persian” and “Iranian” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Modern Iran is a country of many different ethnic and tribal groups. People who identify as Persian make up the majority, but they are joined by significant numbers of Azeri, Gilaki, and Kurdish people, too. All are citizens of Iran and thus Iranians, but only some can trace their lineage to Persia.

Though modern Iran is officially an Islamic state, the primary religion of ancient Persia was Zoroastrianism.
Though modern Iran is officially an Islamic state, the primary religion of ancient Persia was Zoroastrianism.

A lot of this depends, at least in part, on perception. People who think about Iran as essentially modern Persia tend to consider all residents to be Persians regardless of their ethnic affiliations. The country’s official language is Persian, sometimes also called Farsi. In most cases the distinction is cultural.

Farsi, or Persian, is the official language of Iran.
Farsi, or Persian, is the official language of Iran.

Former Kingdom of Persia

Understanding the distinction is sometimes easier with a review of the region’s history. Starting in 600 B.C., Greek politicians called the land within Cyrus the Great’s empire “Persis.” This name was derived from the word “Pars,” which was the name of the people over whom Cyrus the Great ruled. This group of people lived on the land that now exists as the province of Fars in Iran.

Modern Iran is a country of many different ethnic and tribal groups.
Modern Iran is a country of many different ethnic and tribal groups.

Over many hundreds of years, Persis was turned into “Persia.” This remained as the official name for the country until 1935. Many people within the country, however, have called it Iran and referred to its people as “Iranians” since the period of Sassanid rule, which lasted from 226 to 651 A.D. During that time, many individuals with Aryan features lived within the area. “Iran,” in fact, means “land of the Aryans,” and many of the original settlers had Indo-European roots. People who consider themselves ethnically Persian typically share this background.

Renaming and Government Reformation

Government leaders changed the country’s “official” name to Iran in 1935, though this move was protested by many. After this point all citizens were told to consider themselves Iranians and to incorporate the new name into their common and official speech and documents. Politically this move was largely a success, though on a cultural level the Persian name persisted.

Many scholars deeply protested these changes, too, and a group of them convinced the government in 1959 that the terms “Persia” and “Iran” should be used interchangeably. Books printed between 1935 and 1959 are unlikely to include the term “Persian,” as “Iranian” was the only accepted term for residents of the country during those years. Texts printed prior to 1935, however, will typically only use the term “Persian.”

Post-Revolution Controversy

Residents aren’t as likely to be called Persian after the revolution of 1979, which deposed the country’s monarchy and instituted an Islamic Republic government. The last king, considered by many to be the final Persian monarch, fled the country in exile. Some people today consider the term “Persian” to be an anachronism that recalls the former days of monarchy, and from a purely political standpoint this is often accepted. Looking at the issue culturally, though, the term often still has value and relevant meaning.

Persepolis was the ritual capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
Persepolis was the ritual capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments


Good article. I consider everyone from Iran to be Iranian, and to call themselves anything but such as "Persian" to be a nonstarter, because its the same as an Italian calling themselves "Roman" since that's what it was in antiquity. I find it silly, like it's some kind of unjust pride. It's their culture and one of the major ethnicities, but, they're Iranian.


Just watch the movie "Argo" and you have your answer.

They were perfectly fine claiming to be Iranians (especially here in the US) until all the terrorist acts. After the US media showed Iranians burning the American flags in the streets, the American hostage situations, and bombings, Iranians in America were obviously viewed with much bias like the current day Muslims.

They couldn't help but want to hide their identities, and ever since then they decided to stick to claiming they're Persians.


Balooch, azeri, arab, fars (pars or persian), qashqayi... are now living in Iran. Iran is the name of our country, not a race, so someone could be Azeri and Iranian! I am fars (pars or persian) and I am Iranian and it has nothing to do with the regime!


Persian is a sub ethnic group of Iranians, like Kurds, Lors, Gilakis, Pashtuns and Balochi, who are all Iranians (Iranic). But all are not Persian, but are part of the same ethnic and linguistic family.


"Iranian" vs. "Persian."

To understand these questions, please read: "Vashti: Queen of the Ancient Medes: (Airyanem Civilization);

"Esther: Mystery Queen of the Medes" (Airyanem Civilization); "Unified Kurdish Language: The Language of Zoroaster and Darius the Great" and "The Return of the Medes."


Persian is an ethnicity. Around 65 percent of Iran is ethnically Persian, though most Iranians are persified and consider themselves Persian whether ethnically Persian or not.

Persians also aren't only from Iran, but also from Northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and comprise around 20-30 percent of these Arab Persian gulf states such as Kuwait, UAW, Qatar and Bahrain.


There are zero differences between Persian and Iranian. The region speaks only one language, which is really called “Aryan” language. Please see the document by King of Kings, Darius the Great.

After Alexander the Great conquered the “Airyanem Vaejah (Aryan Land)”, the Greek Empire was trying to change the region language, religion, culture, history and heritage of people. Alexander the Great had a secret agreement with Jewish leaders to destroy the united Aryan people. Both Greek and Jewish scholars used Persian tribe to accomplish that. The Medes tribes, Persian tribes and other tribes were part of the Aryan people with the same language and religion, too.

Since the Greeks took over to our time, Greek, Jewish, Arab, Turkish and western scholars have used Persian instead of Aryan to divide the Aryan people of the region.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of traitors among Aryan people (Persians, Kurds and others) to do the dirty jobs for the powers above. Otherwise, we are a people with the same blood and same language. too.

To understand what I wrote above, please read books about the revival of “Airyanem Civilization” series starting with “Vashti: Vashti Queen of the Ancient Medes-Part I.”


They cannot be Persians until they regain their own culture. Real Persians are in now in India who worship in agyari. They were saved because they left the nation before forced conversion. They came to India and asked shelter on the basis that their god of fire and the Indian god are the same god of fire. So they were given shelter and were saved.


I'm sure that most people use the term legitimately, but no doubt that some "Persians" use it because it sounds more exotic.


Persians consist 60 percent of Iran population. The rest are Kurds 10 percent, Lurs, Arabs, Baluch, Gilaki, and Turk each one under 5 percent.


Only 5 percent to 10 percent of Iranians are Persians. The rest are non-Persians/non-Aryans such as turks, kurds, arabs, afghans etc. Most Persians live in Tehran and very few abroad. There is a sistinct difference. Different race, culture, language and features.


Iran was always Iran to Iranians, through melina's and you can find proof of this fact in many old books and poems. Pars or Part were the people who reside in today's province of Fers, which was the capital of the Iranian Empire under the rule of Cyrus the Great.

Therefore Greeks called them persians and called the land Persia and eventually this was transferred to the English. However, in recent years Iranians migrated for the first time, and learned that other nations' average joes are so ignorant about Iran and usually consider them as an Arab so they start to use the term Persian as an indication of their nationality, just to separate themselves from Arab nations. By the way #1 can't be more wrong. --an Iranian


#1 is so incorrect! support of the islamic revolution has nothing to do with those who call themselves "iranian" vs. "persian"


I don't understand the country where I was born must have only one name but why some stupid or maybe ignorant person or people changed my country's name. I really don't know if i am from persia(persian) or Iran(iranian) why?

I perefer persia that i die for it from shomal Rasht, but in some way i have something to say Persis is only Pars. persia is whole country. as we can see in persia map and iran is a lion of persia. this makes sense and i believe it.


this is absolutely ridiculous! being a "persian" is markedly different from being an "iranian." those that supported the iranian islamic revolution in the late 1970's and forward are considered iranians. the persians are those that were born under the regime of the old shah pahlavi and take no credit for the current regime in charge.

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