Writing in the British newspaper the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section, Brian Whitaker took up the question of ‘Persian’ versus ‘Arabian’ Gulf. He says he prefers to just call it “the Gulf,” but notes that Iran has even rejected this middle ground, having banned copies of a 2006 issue of the Economist that only used “the Gulf.”
Whitaker picks up on some of clues from the State Department that I did when I wrote about this issue last week. He concludes that this is a policy change. It’s difficult to not see this the same way Whitaker does: “a rather petty gesture calculated to annoy Iran.”
At an official level, the UN and various other international bodies recognise “Persian Gulf” as the established and recommended name – presumably based on historical usage. That is also the official position of the US. Or rather, it was until last week.
On 20 October, at a press briefing on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary at the state department, referred to “the Arabian Gulf and broader Middle East”.
On its own, this might be brushed off as a slip of the tongue, though Shapiro does seem to have been referring to a prepared statement. And since the phrase “broader Middle East” clearly includes the contentious stretch of water, why was it necessary to mention the Gulf (Persian or otherwise) at all?
Almost immediately, Shapiro’s use of “Arabian Gulf” stirred the National Iranian American Council into action, and in protest they organised a letter-writing campaign to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Their policy director, Jamal Abdi, also wrote an article about it for the Huffington Post, which appeared on Monday.
It’s difficult to imagine, therefore, that when Kurt Campbell – another assistant secretary at the state department – stepped into another press briefing on Tuesday he was totally unaware of the “Arabian Gulf” rumpus. But he then used the phrase himself, referring to “piracy issues in the Arabian Gulf”.
This is too much of a coincidence to be accidental; it suggests a change of policy. “Persian Gulf” has been the official American term since 1917 and in the absence of any explanation from the state department we can only speculate about why it has suddenly become Arabian. There’s no logical reason for it, except as a rather petty gesture calculated to annoy Iran.