DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — With domestic opposition challenging the legitimacy of the last election and the rest of the world ganging up on its nuclear ambitions, the Iranian regime is understandably touchy these days.

Little wonder it blew a fuse when a Greek flight attendant working for a Tehran-based budget airline made the mistake of referring to the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as the Arabian Gulf instead of the Persian Gulf.

From now on, any airline that allows its employees to make such an egregious mistake will be banned from Iranian airspace for 30 days; repeat offenders will have their aircraft grounded in Iran and their flight permits to the country revoked, according to a decree issued last month by Hamid Behbahani, Iran’s transport minister.

Why the fuss? Perhaps because in a region where naming it is owning it (Israel or Palestine?), Iran doesn’t want to take any chances.

Persia is the ancient name for Iran and Persian Gulf is the most widely accepted reference for the body of water in question — and has been since the fifth century B.C. by when it was given that name by Greek geographers.

But in recent years some Arabs have started calling it the Arabian Gulf. They argue that most of the countries that line its shore are Arab. (True, but as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president not famous for his tact, likes to point out, most of these Arab countries are “little countries.”)

The warning shot fired across the bow of the airlines is only the latest in what has become another Middle East war of attrition. Earlier this year, the Islamic Solidarity Games, scheduled to take place in Tehran next month, were canceled when Arab countries pulled out in protest over the design of the games’ medals, which incorporated the term Persian Gulf.

Even the venerable National Geographic Society has been drawn into the dispute.

When the society published the latest edition of its World Atlas in 2004, it used Persian Gulf as the primary name, but also included Arabian Gulf in parentheses and smaller type as a secondary name.

That drew the ire of Iranians around the world, who bombarded the society with complaints and cancellations. The Iranian government banned the sale of National Geographic magazine and barred its journalists from working in the country until the “error” was corrected.

The society responded with an apology of sorts, saying it “does not attempt to make judgments about the validity” of competing names; that it merely acknowledges that conflicting claims exist; that “future iterations of the Atlas and area map” would carry a detailed clarification. Since then, Arabian Gulf no longer appears on the society’s online maps.

Google Earth is the latest cartographer to step into the quagmire. The company’s online maps use both names for the gulf. Both Iran and Iranian-American groups protested. But Google, citing its rule of accepting all common local usages, has stood its ground and gives both names equal billing.

Despite being Iran’s bitterest foe — and friendliest friend to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states that border the Gulf — the United States government comes down squarely on the side of Iran in this argument. It’s the Persian Gulf, according to the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names.

The United Nations also agrees with Iran. It has issued several directives stating that “Persian Gulf” is the only name to be used in official documents.

And just to make sure, Iran’s theocratic regime established a new national holiday: April 29 is “National Persian Gulf Day.”

Naming controversy aside, the gulf remains a geopolitical flashpoint. More than a quarter of the world’s oil supply is shipped through its waters, and there are several small islands in its midst that are a constant sources of friction between the United Arab Emirates, which claims them, and Iran, which occupies them.

Fortunately, the only bombs being dropped at the moment are so-called Google bombs. These are the work of cyber pranksters who create satirical websites that wreak havoc with Google search results. Do a Google search on “Arabian Gulf” and the first result that pops up is a website that says, “The gulf you are looking for is unavailable. No body of water by that name has ever existed. The correct name is Persian Gulf, which always has been, and always will remain, Persian.”

Airlines are more circumspect. Most that fly to region try to keep both sides happy by referring to the gulf as, simply, The Gulf.


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