Keeping the world’s most vital oil-exporting waterway named “Persian” is a national touchstone and highly emotive issue for Iranians.
So there has been widespread anger in Iran in recent days after internet users spotted that Google Maps now has no name on the body of water that Iran insists must be called the Persian Gulf and nothing else.
Iran sees the web giant’s omission as a politically-motivated attack.
“The efforts of [global] arrogance [America] and its Arab allies to remove the name of Persian Gulf will result in its name becoming more durable,” said Bahman Dorri, a senior official in Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.
The waterway also touches Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that call it the Arabian Gulf.
“Google fabricating lies will not have any outcome but for its users to lose trust in the data it provides,” Mr Dorri said.
“Documents in the UN and UNESCO show the name of this body of water has been Persian Gulf since a long time ago.”
A number of Iranians have posted on Twitter a link to Google Maps demanding “Where’s the Persian Gulf?”
The name dispute flares periodically, but the latest spat comes at a time of increasing tension between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, infuriated the GCC last month by visiting Abu Musa, one of three tiny Gulf islands whose ownership is claimed by both Iran and the UAE. Iran believes there has been a pan-Arabist campaign since the 1950s, led by the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and later by the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, to call the waterway the Arabian Gulf. At the height of the Persian empire of Darius and Xerxes the Great, ancient Greek writers called the stretch of water the Persian Gulf, and the name has stuck ever since.
Today, the UN refers to it as the Persian Gulf, as does the UK and the US, although the US Navy, which has extensive dealings with Arab Gulf states, mostly uses Arabian Gulf.
“Undoubtedly, the correct geographical term in history is the Persian Gulf,” Sir Richard Dalton, a British former ambassador to Iran and senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said. “Iran recognises it’s largely international waters and they’re not laying claim to it as part of their territory in terms of hydrocarbon resources and so on.
“The correct terminology is an emotional issue for many Iranians. The British don’t mind the French calling the English channel La Manche, but Iran just doesn’t see it that way.”
In 2010, Iran warned that airlines using Arabian Gulf on in-flight monitors would be barred from Iranian airspace.
Google’s attempt to avoid controversy by simply not naming the waterway follows equally unsuccessful efforts by foreign news organisations and other bodies not to ruffle Iranian or Arab feathers.
In 2004, National Geographic published a world atlas that, while acknowledging the waterway’s primary name as the Persian Gulf added Arabian Gulf in brackets.
Tehran banned the American-owned magazine and its reporters from visiting Iran.