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Hearts and minds lost in Iran over US renaming the Persian Gulf

The US Navy's decision to refer to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” has added a new dimension to a decades old disagreement between Iran and some of the Arab states.

The decision of the US Navy to rename the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” might seem to be a mere renaming of a waterway, but it will have serious implications for the American battle for the hearts and minds of Iranians.

The United States has much at stake in Iran and a considerable interest in maintaining its image among the Iranian grassroots. Over the last few decades the Islamic Republic has been considered a focal points of American foreign policy. The controversial Iranian nuclear project and their intervention in some regional countries such as Iraq, as well as their explicit support of Hamas and Hezbollah have placed Iran at the centre of attention among policy makers in Washington.

Despite the obvious animosity between the United States and Iran, the image of America in Iran is not entirely black and white. Although anti-Americanism is a defining element of the state ideology, the Iranian people are perceived to be much more congenial towards the United States. Although these paradoxes between state and society have been repeatedly elaborated by observers, It is important to re-highlight the matter to contextualise the American position in Iran. A few years ago, Abbas Abdi who played an active role in the Iran Hostage Crisis, conducted a poll asking Iranians whether they would support resuming a dialogue with the United States. The results suggested that 74.4% of those asked preferred reestablishment of relations with a country that their leaders had dubbed the Great Satan. Although the organisers of the poll were dealt with harshly by the Iranian judiciary, their findings added to a widespread belief that unlike many bordering nations, the Iranian civil society is not hostile towards the US. This can be considered valuable political capital for Washington.

It is difficult to separate culture from politics in Iran. Like many countries with a rich history and culture feeding into its identity, Iranian people are very proud of their cultural heritage. This interest in history and heritage deepens under the current dire social, political, and economic conditions and in the absence of prospects for a brighter future. An abstract set of historical narratives and cultural symbols are remoulded to constitute an independent voice from the state in order to invigorate the identity of Iranians and offer them more assertiveness and self-confidence. Iranian heritage is multidimensional, going beyond the cultural arena and affecting the people’s political views.

American policy makers have been aware of these cultural particularities and have used this knowledge to gain political leverage among members of the Iranian civil society. American leaders have repeatedly highlighted the division between the leadership and the people in Iran and have accused the government of contradicting the will of the nation. In various statements American policy makers have banked on Iranian culture and heritage to criticise the Islamic Republic, suggesting that the people “deserve” a better leadership. For example, soon after his election, president Obama issued an exclusive video addressing the Iranians on the occasion of the Persian New Year, reciting classical Persian literature and praising the Iranian civilisation. Although we cannot accurately measure the impact of such approaches, they have doubtlessly been essential in boosting the American image in a country where pro-Americanism is sacrilegious among the political leaders.

However, lately there have been repercussions from the Iranian civil society regarding the US Navy's decision to call the Persian Gulf the “Arabian Gulf” in their press releases. Thousands of people both within and outside Iran have campaigned and expressed their frustration and utter disappointment with the United States on this issue. As a result to many Iranians the US government is responsible for sabotaging the importance of Iranian history and heritage. At a time when the bilateral relationship is burdened, the US is actively undermining its own image among the Iranian people. This can narrow the gap between the state ideology and the perspective of the grassroots about the United States in Iran.

The history of disagreement over the name of the waterway goes back to the 1960s. The proposed name of “Arabian Gulf” goes back to the legacy of Arab nationalism led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Egyptian nationalist who attempted to unify the Arab world against Western imperialism. In the 1960s, Iran was considered the primary Western ally in the region with the Shah regime as the main protector of the West’s interests. Nasser was the first to suggest that the Persian Gulf should be renamed the “Arabian Gulf” to punish Iranians for their pro-Western stance. Although the idealism and aspirations of pan-Arab nationalism have largely died out, the issue of renaming the Persian Gulf has continued to be a source of tension between Iran and the Arab World.

Iranians have constantly referred to Greek, Roman, Persian, and Arabic sources to show that the Persian Gulf is the more historically justified name for the waterway. They have also referred to the legality of the term. In all international legal documents and treaties the Persian Gulf is the name that is recognised. At the twenty-third session of the United Nations in March-April 2006, the “Persian Gulf” was confirmed again as the official term to be used by members of the United Nations. International Law explicitly states (pdf) that “any change, destruction, or alteration of the names registered in historical deeds and maps is like the destruction of ancient works and is considered as an improper action. Therefore, the names of geographical features profiting from a unique historical identity, should not be utilised as political instruments in reaching a political, tribal, and racial objective, or in any clash with national interests and other's values”.

With this in mind many Iranians are frustrated that the United States is turning a blind eye to the historicity and legality of the term. Given the extreme cultural sensitivity of the matter, many segments of the society who traditionally had a more favourable view of United States regard the US Navy’s decision as a provocation. Regardless whether the decision is synchronised with the wider American military and the political establishment, Iranian civil society perceives this as an offensive act. The United States is seen as a country that is prepared to ignore entrenched historical and legal treaties for short-term political motives. Without doubt, this act will endanger the American battle for the hearts and minds of the Iranian people.

About the author

Afshin Shahi is a lecturer in Middle East Politics and International Relations at the University of Bradford. He tweets @AfshinShahi


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