Persian Gulf: The First Iranian Gulf Waterway

The Persian Gulf is a 600-mile-long body of water, which separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the most strategic waterways in the world due to its importance in world oil transportation. At its narrowest point (the Strait of Hormuz), the Gulf narrows to only 34 miles wide.

This inland sea of some 233,000 square km is connected to the Gulf of Oman in the east by the Strait of Hormuz, and its western end is marked by the major river delta of the Shatt al-Arab, called Arvand-Rood by Iranians, which carries the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris.

In 325 BC, Macedonian Alexander sent a fleet from India to follow the eastern, or Persian coast of the area up to the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and sent other ships to explore the Arab side of the waterway. The temporary Greek presence in the area increased Western interest in the Persian Gulf during the next two centuries. Alexander’s successors, however, did not control the area long enough to make it a part of the Greek world. By about 250 BC, the Greeks lost all territory east of Syria to the Parthians, a Persian dynasty in the East.

The Parthians brought the Persian Gulf under Persian control and extended their influence as far as Oman. The Parthian conquests demarcated the distinction between the Greek world of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Empire in the East. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, depended on the Red Sea route, whereas the Parthians depended on the Persian Gulf route. Because they needed to keep the merchants who plied those routes under their control, the Parthians established garrisons as far south as Oman. In the third century AD, the Sassanians, another Persian dynasty, succeeded the Parthians and held the area until the rise of Islam four centuries later.

Under Sassanian rule, Persian control over the whole area of the Persian Gulf reached its height. Oman was no longer a threat, and the Sassanians were strong enough to establish agricultural colonies and to engage some of the nomadic tribes in the interior as a border guard to protect their western flank from the Romans.

This agricultural and military contact gave people in the Persian Gulf greater exposure to Persian culture, as reflected in certain irrigation techniques still used in Oman. The Persian Gulf continued to be a crossroads, however, and its people learned about Persian beliefs, such as Zoroastrianism, as well as about Semitic and Mediterranean ideas. Judaism and Christianity arrived in the Persian Gulf from a number of directions: from Jewish and Christian tribes in the Arabian Desert; from Ethiopian Christians to the south; and from Mesopotamia, where Jewish and Christian communities flourished under Sassanian rule.

Whereas Zoroastrianism seems to have been confined to Persian colonists, some Arabs adopted Christianity and Judaism. The popularity of these religions paled, however, when compared with the enthusiasm with which the Arabs greeted Islam.
In succeeding centuries Persians, Turks, Arabs, Brits and Western Europeans contested control of the region. British presence in the Gulf dated from the early 17th century, when the East India Company established an agency, which became a residency in
1763  the region. But it was only after a major military intervention in 1820 that British influence really became dominant, the different local states signing, in the course of the years between 1820 and 1835, a serial of treaties limiting their sovereignty and bringing them at the end, under British protectorate.

In 1853, Britain and the Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf signed the Perpetual Maritime Truce, formalizing the temporary truces of 1820 and 1835. The sheikhs agreed to stop harassing British shipping in the Arabian Sea and to recognize Britain as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. An international agreement among the major powers in 1907 placed the Persian Gulf in the British sphere of influence. Although oil was discovered in the Persian Gulf in 1908, it was not until the 1930s, when major finds were made, that keen international interest in the region revived. Since World War II the Persian Gulf oil fields, among the most productive in the world, have been extensively developed, and modern port facilities have been constructed. Nearly 50% of the world’s total oil reserves are estimated to be found in the Persian Gulf. In 2003, the Persian Gulf countries (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) produced about 27% of the world’s oil, while holding 57% (715 billion barrels) of the world’s crude oil reserves. Besides oil, the Persian Gulf region also has huge reserves (2,462 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas, accounting for 45% of total proven world gas reserves. The Persian Gulf is also a large fishing source and was once the chief center of the pearling industry.

In the late 1960s, following British military withdrawal from the area, the United States and the Russia (USSR at the time) sought to fill the vacuum. In 1971 the first US military installation in the Persian Gulf was established at Bahrain. The Persian Gulf was among the scenes of the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988, as with each side attacking the other’s oil tankers. In 1991 the Persian Gulf again was the background for a Persian Gulf War as Iraq invaded Kuwait and was subsequently pushed back during what is now predominantly known as the Persian Gulf War, despite the fact that this conflict did not focus primarily on the Persian Gulf.

As the Persian Cat, the Persian Lamb, and the Persian Rug, the name of the Persian Gulf is also a very distinct term. The Persian name for this body of water was borrowed by almost all the old languages (including Greek term of Persis) as, the Persian Gulf, and has been in use everywhere since ancient times, for it signifies the first major nation-state in that area, namely the Persian Empire (Contemporary Iran).

In the 1960s, with the rise of Arab nationalism, Arab countries began to call The Persian Gulf, the “Arabian Gulf”. However, the Iranian government led two resolutions in the United Nations to officially recognize that body of water as the Persian Gulf. The first announcement was made through the document UNAD, 311/Qen on March 5, 1971 and the second was UNLA 45.8.2 (C) on August 10, 1984. Most countries and organizations use the name Persian Gulf. Shortly after Islamic Republic was established in Iran, Arab countries started to use the term “Arabian Gulf” in Arabic and English, while some other people tend to use “the Gulf”.

Unfortunately, after August 10, 1984 the IR regime a avoided not only strongly protest the Arabs and others using the wrong and misleading terms, some Iranian clergies suggested to even name it as Islamic Gulf to overcome the dispute between Iranians and Arabs! The suggestion was so absurd that nobody could follow.

Recently, America’s National Geographic Society (ANGS) has added the phrase of “the Arabic Gulf” to the term of Internationally recognized name of “the Persian Gulf” in the 2005 edition of its World Atlas. Upon a worldwide protest of the patriotic Iranians, ANGS has claimed that this alteration has been done after consulting official authorities of the UN and of the governments concerned. Whether ANGS is truthful or not, it remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. ANGS people are exactly facing the same problem of geographic ignorance as they surveyed 3000 young people in 2002. Here is a piece of news published by BBC two years ago on November 20, 2002:

[If you are lost, don’t ask a young person for directions, that is the message coming out of an international survey of 18-24 year olds conducted by America’s National Geographic Society. More than 3000 young adults in nine countries were tested on their geographical knowledge, with some alarming results. The survey took place in June and July 2002 as a follow-up to a similar test carried out in 1988 by the National Geographic Society. The president of the National Geographic Society, John Fahey, bemoaned the results. “They highlight the urgency of the problem of geographic ignorance and the need to broaden our efforts beyond the classroom,” he said. “If young people can’t find places on a map and lack awareness of current events, how can they understand the world’s cultural, economic and natural resource issues that confront us?? he added.]*

That would be great if we all could remember Socrates who wisely said: “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance”!


1. The Persian text of poems composed by Ferdowsi, Mohammad Taghi Bahar, Nemat Azarm, Pirayeh Yaghmaii, and this author may be viewed Online here

2. A blog on the “Name of Persian Gulf” may be also viewed here 

3. National Persian Gulf Day is a very important day for the Iranians and it is celebrated annually on April 30th. It has taken place every year since 2004, and is marked with various ceremonies all over Iran, especially in the coastal cities of the Persian Gulf

Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD

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