The Iranians are left with no choice this week but to believe that the United States has a pro-Arab agenda. In light of President Obama’s series of reverential visits and meetings with leaders in the Arab Muslim world and following a lost chance at supporting the Iranian people in a momentous, bloody, civil uprising, the latest directive by the administration, demanding that the name ‘Arabian Gulf’ replace the millennia-old designation of "Persian Gulf" was the last straw.
Last week, attention was called to the United States Navy’s statement instructing writers and editors to use ‘Arabian Gulf,’ angering Iranians in Iran and abroad, including many Iranian Americans. Thousands of messages, some polite and others more incendiary, on the Navy’s official website and Facebook page gave the administration a strong taste of how far the Iranian people are willing to go to defend their nationalistic pride.
Historically and geographically, the Iranians have considered themselves the oldest and most central inhabitants of the region for several millennia. The term Persian, dating back to the Persian Empire, carries considerable patriotic and historical significance for the Iranian people.
The Facebook Navy site administrator responded to the barrage of complaints, particularly as many Iranians expressed even more frustration when they realized their comments were being erased and even blocked from the site. The Navy responded that the site was suddenly bombarded with an overwhelming influx of comments.
The main explanation given for the directive was:
The use of the term “Arabian Gulf” vice Persian Gulf is used by naval forces including our regional partners there for years. We use this term in press releases, news stories, and photos coming from the Navy in the region. The often cited Navy Style Guide that says to use the term “Arabian Gulf” vice Persian Gulf is really only applicable to them since commands in their area would be the only naval forces publishing stories in the region.
Weak words for such a bold move to recreate history. At least, that’s how the Iranians see it.
Based on the response, it seems as though the administration is enforcing a policy of appeasement. The track record on appeasement, though, looks rather scattered when you consider a president who speaks out against Israeli settlements, yet not against suicide bombers. President Obama calls it diplomacy when he prostrates himself before leaders in Indonesia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But what about the people of Iran? Why didn’t President Obama appease one of our most overlooked allies in the Middle East—the 70 million people living in Iran—in their hour of need?
Not putting full support behind the people of Iran may have been one of the biggest and most irreversible diplomatic errors of our time. What’s worse, is that if giving the Iranians the cold shoulder last year did not create an irreparable rift between us and the people, then this latest move to belittle their cultural pride in favor of the sheikhdoms that surround them, will make it clear. Consider that bridge burned.
Particularly considering the timing, coinciding with the 5+1 summit with Iran which began last Monday in Geneva and a further round of talks to continue at the end of January in Turkey, Iranians are even more baffled as to why the United States would now try to find favor with the Arabs at the expense of deteriorating an already weak relationship with the Iranian people. Instead, the Obama administration seems more interested in cultivating a dangerously strained and precarious relationship with the Iranian theocracy.
Historical claims aside, the United States and the Pentagon have always used the term "Persian’ Gulf," and the war in Iraq in 1990-91 has been called the "Persian Gulf War" or the "Gulf War." The United Nations has had to intervene on a few occasions in 1994, 1999, and most recently, in the 23rd session in spring of 2006, arguing that only "Persian Gulf" be used as the official geographic name. Since traditionally, "Arabian Gulf" was used to refer to the Red Sea, it would make sense that the designation would not be repeated for the Gulf.
Though never before a cyber confrontation, this cultural and historical rivalry has been long and often bloody. Now proponents on each side have created dozens of Facebook group pages that fans can "like" and comment on. Caustic messages on both ends have resulted in the removal of some groups from the site. There are Youtube videos historically validating the use of "Persian Gulf" and its origins and others defending the use of "Arabian." A "Google bomb" that was created a few years ago on the terminology is back: Those researching the "Arabian Gulf" might click on www.arabian-gulf.info, a site highly recommended by Google. Once the site loads, the page reads, “The Gulf You Are Looking For Does Not Exist. Try Persian Gulf.”
This is not the first time that the Iranian international community has been up in arms about this issue. The Google bomb was actually created over the last Persian Gulf controversy in 2004. Customarily, National Geographic has used the name Persian Gulf, but that year, it published an updated version of the National Geographic Atlas of the World where “Arabian Gulf” was provided as an alternative name. Iranians around the globe protested heavily. At the end of 2004, National Geographic formally apologized to the Iranian people and reversed its decision. They published an updated amendment removing the parenthetical reference, still mentioning that the body of water “is referred to by some as the Arabian Gulf.”
So the question remains: why is the administration so keen on appeasing the Arab world? More importantly, where is the concern for further damaging the Washington D.C./Tehran relationship? Even if the argument can be made that the name change adoption was a rogue move against an even more rogue dictator such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the distinction must be made that this is not merely a move against the government of Iran -- it is a betrayal against the people.
But what’s the big deal? It’s one word, some might say. Persian. Arabian. To some they’re even synonymous. But to the Iranians, who value and revere their heritage and culture, it is viewed as robbery of their one last cherished possession.
Ever since the Iranian people have been on the international stage intermittently since the country's election in June of 2009, there has been speculation and confusion about the overall political hue of the country. Are the people religious? Who actually voted for Ahmadinejad? Do they hate Americans? And while there are some religious, some fanatics, some supporters of Ahmadinejad and some brutally against the United States and its people, the media has been portraying them as a nation of freedom-loving, Internet-using, Tweeters and pop-culture consumers. It has been difficult to generalize 70 million people living in a diverse and expansive country. Finally, we have found a notion on which all Iranians will unite, and that is on their patriotism.
If we consider the political and social trials that the Iranian people have endured over the last three decades, as their country was uprooted by brutal, unjust Islamic fanatics who preached and violently enforced a religious ideology contrary to their own Iranian culture, their fascination and fixation with history, legacy and nationalistic pride gives a clear indication about the people’s homogenous love affair with Iranian heritage, dating back before Iran was a country and when the Persian Empire flexed its power and control over the region.
Delegitimization of that history, whether in the form of a government ban against the celebration of Mehregan, the ancient Zoroastrian celebration of the arrival of the autumn season, or by a U.S. directive to change the name of a geographically and emotionally significant body of water, shakes and the soul of every Iranian, wherever they live.