In a recent book, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy claims that Reza Shah Pahlavi, the founder of Iran’s last dynasty, changed his country’s official name from Persia to Iran to make a good impression on Nazi Germany. The latter name is related to the word “Aryan,” which was used by the ancient people of the area stretching from Iraq to India to describe themselves, as well as by such Western writers as Herodotus. In the late-19th century, it began to be used by European historians and was eventually adopted by German race theorists. But, writes Amir Taheri, Lévy not only gets the story wrong but also unwittingly repeats a piece of propaganda that originated with Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers:
Trying to justify their [own] anti-Semitism, expressed through anti-Israel rhetoric, the ruling mullahs claim that they are continuing an old national tradition. To back that claim they trace their policy to Reza Shah, the man who founded the Pahlavi dynasty, [which was later overthrown by the self-styled Islamic revolution]. FARS, the news agency run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, ran a long feature detailing what it claims are Reza Shah’s misdeeds, including his promotion of “Aryanism,” allegedly under Nazi influence, [in order to discredit him]. . . .
All that isn’t surprising; Reza Shah and his promotion of patriotism was the polar opposite of Khomeini [and his worldview, which emphasizes religion over nationalism]. . . .
Consciousness of Iran and Iranian-ness [as opposed to a narrower sense of Persian identity] has been a theme of hundreds of poets writing in modern Persian, the lingua franca of Iranian peoples, for over 1100 years. Many of them were born and lived in lands that are not part of present-day Iran and had as their mother tongues other languages of the Iranic or Indo-Iranian linguistic family; but all saw themselves as Iranians. . . .
[I]n 1936, Hitler’s government tried to classify Iranian Jews as “Semites” and thus sub-humans. Iran protested and argued that as far as Iranian Jews were concerned, Judaism was a religion, not a racial category, and that Iranian Jews should be regarded as Aryans. Iranians insisted that Cyrus the Great had liberated the Jews from bondage in Babylon 25 centuries earlier and that Iranian Jews had been Iranian long enough not to be divested of their identity. Hitler set up a committee . . . to arbitrate. . . . The committee recommended that Iranian Jews be exempted from Nazi racial profiling, and Hitler agreed. . . .
[This was] the reality of the situation under Reza Shah who abolished many of the last remaining restrictions against Jews and other religious minorities, a process that had started 50 years earlier under Nassereddin Shah.