How should Iran preserve the name of
February 11, 2005
Iran has reacted angrily to a map of Persian Gulf
in a recent issue of National Geographic, which showed
the name 'Arabian Gulf'
next to "Persian Gulf' in reference to this body of water.
This anger was expressed by the Iranian government and many Iranian
political groups regardless of their support or opposition to the
The incident has also increased Iran's sensitivity
to other circumstances where Persian Gulf is referred to as 'Arab
Gulf' or 'Arabian Gulf'. Iran has even threatened to boycott
the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar if the game sponsors continue
use the name 'Arabian' Gulf in their official documents.
While Arab countries have repeatedly used the name Arabian Gulf
in the past four decades, Iran's reaction has never been as severe
as the National Geographic incident. This incident has increased
Iran's sensitivity to such a high level that it could have an adverse
effect on Arab-Iranian relations. Under popular pressure, Iranian
officials will have to react to any future incidents where any
international organization uses the name "Arabian Gulf".
This will be a difficult battle for several reasons. First, as
Iran shows more sensitivity to "Arabian Gulf" the Arab
countries (specially the littoral states of Persian Gulf: Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE and Qatar) will react by trying harder
to promote this name. Second, these Arab countries are gaining
more economic and political significance because of their rising
volume of trade and investment with rest of the world.
institutions such as multinational oil companies frequently use
the name "Arabian Gulf" to please the Arab countries
and protect their interests. Some of these entities that want to
be in good terms with both Iran and Arab countries, refer to the
Persian Gulf as "the Gulf" to maintain neutrality. We
can expect the Arab countries of Persian Gulf to use their rising
economic power to promote the usage of 'Arabian Gulf'.
Despite these difficulties Iran is right to fight for the protection
of the name of Persian Gulf. However, a confrontational approach,
which relies on protest and boycott is not enough and might not
even be successful. Iran should also address the root cause of
this issue by engaging in direct negotiation with the Arab countries
that insist on changing the name of Persian Gulf.
this dispute could lead to mistrust and animosity on both side
and create a fertile ground for future Arab-Iranian conflicts.
I'm not predicting that Iran will go to war with any Arab country
over this 'name' dispute but the ill feelings that will result
from this dispute will make it more likely that disputes over
other issues could lead to conflict.
The Arab world has a dual feeling about Iran. While Arab nationalism
and long history of Arab-Iranian rivalries have led to ill feelings
on both sides, many Arabs admire Iran for its pro-Palestinian position.
In the first decade after the Islamic revolution the Arab-Iranian
relations deteriorated because of the Iran-Iraq war and Islamic
regime's campaign to export Islamic revolution to the Arab countries.
The relations improved in 1990s, particularly after Mohammad Khatami
won the presidential election in 1997.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have
improved their relations and increased their bilateral trade
in the past five years. More recently Iran has restored diplomatic
relations with Egypt. Iran and United Arab Emirate are locked
a territorial dispute over three small islands in Persian Gulf
but despite this dispute they have also had several high level
diplomatic contacts in recent years and Iran is one of UAE's
largest trade partners. In addition thousands of Iranians live
commercial capital, Dubai.
As a result of these improved relations and the goodwill of ordinary
Arabs toward Iran, the Iranian government might be able to resolve
the name dispute through direct negotiations. The argument is simple.
Arab's never challenged the name of Persian Gulf before 1960s.
Calls for replacing 'Persian' with 'Arab' were first made by
the Egyptian nationalist leader Jamal Abdul Nasser in reaction
support for Israel. It has since gained a momentum of its own
despite the complete reversal in Iran's policy toward Arab-Israeli
after the Islamic revolution. Iran can argue that since the name
change was a reaction to Iran's pro-Israeli position prior to
the 1979 revolution, the Arabs must show their appreciation for
pro-Palestinian policies after the revolution by respecting the
name of Persian Gulf.
Direct negotiation has a good chance for resolving this dispute
because it is in the interest of Arab world to have good relations
with Iran and many Arabs are well aware of this. Peace and friendship
with Iran will enhance the Arab world's bargaining position in
the Arab-Israeli conflict and improve the security of oil exporting
countries of Persian Gulf.
Iranian government should first approach
those Arab countries that have had close relations with Iran
in recent years such as Syria and Saudi Arabia and ask for their
in convincing other Arab countries to respect Iran's demand.
If Iran can manage to establish warm relations with the new government
of Iraq, it can count on Iraq's help on this initiative as well.
Resolving potential sources of conflict with the Arab world is
in Iran's strategic and economic interest as well. Iran has worked
hard since 1997 to improve its relations with the Arab world and
this effort has been partially successful. Preserving and improving
these relations is in Iran's long-term interest. Iran should choose
a strategy for protecting the name of Persian Gulf that will be
compatible with this objective. Negotiation and direct talks with
the Arab world should come before threats and boycotts.
Nader Habibi is an economist with concentration on Middle East
economies. He is currently the Managing Director of Middle East
and North Africa region
in the economic consulting firm Global Insight. He is the author of Atul's
Quest (Aventine Press, 2003).