My big fat Persian gulf

Between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, on top of the greatest pool of oil reserves in the world, through the Strait of Hormuz is the extension of the Gulf of Oman, an inland sea of some 233,000 km (989 kilometeres long) ending at the Arvand/Shatt al-Arab river, which carries the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and separates Iran from Saudi Arabia and provides the coastline to United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran; collectively called the Persian Gulf States and home to more than 118 million people. This inland sea is what the people of Iran have always called the “Persian Gulf”.

In a flashback to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in which the father of the bride prides in the fact that he can prove the origin of every word is in Greek, the origin of the name “Persian Gulf” is in the ancient Greek name “Persious Sinus” given to this body of water by the Greek geographers Strabo and Ptolemy who interestingly called the Red Sea, Sinus Arabicus (Arabian Gulf).

Some years later, when the Romans took over from the Greek as the dominant force in the region, they too chose to reflect the significance of Iran, or I should say Persia, when naming this body of water: “Aquarius Persico”. Move forward in history again to the time when the Muslim Arabs conquered Iran in 7th century AD and even they referred to it as “Bahr al-farsi”.

So with the brief exception of a short while in the 17th century when due to the importance of Basra as a trading port the Gulf was named “Gulf of Basra”, Iran and this body of water have remained one for over a thousand years. Even as recently as 1984 all 22 Arab nations in the United Nations signed the formal recognition by the United Nations of the “Persian Gulf”, in addition the United States Board of Geographic Names has considered “Persian Gulf” as the legal name for this body of water since 1917.

When I recently asked you to vote for the Iranian person of the year many of you voted for the National Geographic stating that because it had “mislabeled” the “Persian Gulf” as “Arabian Gulf” it had created a unity amongst the Iranian people. This is an interesting point which I want to explore further in this short essay, and try to find out why Iranians want it called the “Persian Gulf”, why the Arabs want it called “The Arabian Gulf”, and how the National Geographic got stuck in the middle

But first I must point out that on November 22nd 2004, when Iran officially banned the circulation of National Geographic magazine and its reporters from Iran, it did so not because the magazine has “mislabeled” its map but because it had included “Arabian Gulf” as a secondary name for the “Persian Gulf” in its 8-pound, $165, 8th Edition “Atlas of the World” after its map makers noticed that some U.S. military agencies use the name Arabian Gulf for the body of water on Iran's southwestern shore.

What is interesting is that with the exception of the time after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini, Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, and Revolutionary Judge Sadegh Khalkhali, reportedly suggested the use of the “Islamic Gulf” (the idea was abandoned after Iran was invaded by its Muslim neighbor Iraq), this is the first time Iran's government has taken an official stance.

In your letters to me a few of you were very quick to state that the real fault here is that of the Americans and the British whose government agencies and corporations want to see the name changed to the Arabian Gulf because then they would feel legitimized to deal with the more cooperative Arab nations in the purchase of oil and leave Iran entirely out of the negotiations.

To some extent you are correct. Some of the first references to the Arabian Gulf in the US press came after the Standard Oil of California found oil on the Arabian side of the Gulf, and as many of you pointed out the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) and press have been one of the only international press agencies referring to this water way as simply “the Gulf” over the last three decades, signaling an unwillingness to accept Iran as a legitimate power over this water way.

In fact, the British have been far more involved in this situation than the Americans, so perhaps “Dai Jan Napelon” Iran's favorite TV character was right when he said, “it is always the fault of the British!” It is a little know fact that the first person to suggest calling this body of water the “Arabian Gulf” was Sir Charles Belgrave, the British adviser to the rulers of Bahrain in the early 1930s. Although Belgrave's suggestion fell on deaf ears, a few years later in 1951, a British MI6 officer named Roderick Owen wrote a book titled “The Golden Bubble of the Arabian Gulf”, which was basically a piece of literary propaganda for the benefit of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which was facing hard times during Mossadegh's Nationalistic Iran.

If Owen's book was the seed for change then Nasser's Egyptian Regime was the fertilizer when in 1968 Nasser began a global campaign to the change the name “Persian Gulf” to “Arabian Gulf” and handed the running of the campaign to the Ba'ath regime in Iraq (herein lies the seeds of the Iran-Iraq war) who at the time had the financial backing of United Arab Emirates due to a close alliance with Abu Dhabi.

As the Iranian uproar began, the National Geographic at first responded with this statement; “It has been the society's cartographic practice to display a secondary name in parentheses when the use of such a name has become commonly recognized.”

But after it received over 5,000 emails from angry Iranians, and realized the power of 70,000 Iranian online petitioners and bloggers signing “The Persian Gulf Will Remain Persian” petition. Also Iranians “google” bombs directed any search for “Arabian Gulf” to a site constructed by Iranians which demanded the correction of the said maps. Iranians won; with sheer national pride they united to make sure their history was credited correctly.

What the editors of National Geographic did not realize was that when it comes to maps which draw lines of identity around the people of a nation you can't simply apply the rules of cartographic practice and forget that maps are about history too. To the people of Iran, who are of Indo-European decent, the name “Persian Gulf” is symbolic of the historical memory of a great civilization spanning 7,000 years, a history which was their identity long before oil was found and Americans and the British stepped on their shores; and for that identity they will unite long after the oil has dried up and both the Americans and the British have left.

In the words of Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, this battle for identity dates back “to Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Great back before the birth of Christ and before Islam appeared on the scene.”

For more about Buddahead, aka Raman Kia, and his band, visit

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