Teheran has decided to teach its Arab neighbors a lesson in geography. From now on the airlines of Gulf countries will have to use the term “Persian Gulf” for flights to the Islamic Republic, or else be banned from Iranian airspace.
“The airlines of the southern Persian Gulf countries flying to Iran are warned to use the term ‘Persian Gulf’ on their electronic display boards; otherwise they will be banned from Iranian airspace for a month, and upon repetition their aircraft will be grounded in Iran and flight-permits to Iran will be revoked,” Roads and Transportation Minister Hamid Behbahani told the Iran newspaper on Monday.
On Tuesday, Iranian.com reported that “although the decision refers mainly to neighboring countries to Iran, a foreign employee of Iranian commercial carrier Kish Air had been fired for using the term “Arabian Gulf” on a display board.”
This step was described as a “patriotic move carried out to safeguard Iranian suzerainty,” Iranian television reported.
The Iranian government decision was widely cited by the press in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. The national airlines of these countries will have to face this challenge after the 15 days of grace granted by the Iranian government expire.
Sources in the UAE hinted that if the ban is implemented, the Arab states will be forced to take punitive measures against Iranian carriers.
“It is an unwise decision for the Iranians, given their current confrontation with the West over Teheran’s nuclear program. Iran is shooting itself in the foot by doing this. They will deprive their country of transit fees and neighboring nations will be obliged to impose reciprocal acts against Iranian flights,” Riad Kahwaji, director-general of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told the Gulf News daily on Monday.
This move will be especially tough on the UAE, since Iran is the top destination for Dubai International Airport, with more than 300 flights per week.
Ironically, Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said on Monday that Teheran’s approach to the region is focused on restoring stability and security to the Persian Gulf and to the larger Middle East. Najjar spoke at a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Teheran.
According to Dr. Vladimir Mesamed, an expert on Iran at the Hebrew University, the Gulf nomenclature issue comes up rather often in the Iranian press: “In 2008, when Google published a map that mentioned the name ‘Arabian gulf,’ Iranians were furious. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that the term ‘Persian Gulf’ be used instead.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
, Mesamed said Teheran’s decision to impose the use of “Persian Gulf” on its Arab neighbors is closely tied to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
“Iran is very unpredictable nowadays. Just a few days ago its spokesmen announced that Iran is already a member of the nuclear club and that it is able to enrich uranium to the 90-percent level. Their current move reflects tension in the region over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the position of Arabian Peninsula states caught between ties to Washington and fear of Teheran. It might also be a preemptive step meant to stop any Arab attempt to ‘Arabize’ the Gulf while Iran is in a vulnerable position,” Mesamed said.
The waterway that is usually referred by the international community today as “Persian” has changed its name a number of times in the past century. The Ottomans used to refer to it as “the Basra Gulf” and lesser often as “the Persian Gulf.” Iraq’s longtime ruling Ba’ath party adopted the “Basra Gulf,” while the rising Iranian national movement stressed that the Gulf is “Persian.”
The budding pan-Arab movement in the early ’50s brought with it “the Arabian Gulf.” However outside the Arab world, it was rarely referred to as such.
With President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad in power in Teheran, the name of the Gulf has again turned into a hot potato. The Iranians, striving for hegemony in the area, believe the wording is of the utmost importance as it signifies their historical role and geopolitical weight in the region.
The nearby Arab Sunni rulers fear Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence and power and refuse to recognize the “Persian” character of the waterway in particular and of the region in general.
In January, the Saudi-based Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation announced it won’t be participating in April’s Islamic Solidarity Games in Iran, because of the Persian/Arabian Gulf controversy.
Many schoolbooks in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and other Gulf countries use only “Arabian Gulf” when referring to the waterway.
However, two memoranda from UN secretary-generals, in 1971 and 1984, stipulate that the Gulf should be referred as “Persian,” a trump card often used by Iranian to explain their position.
Over the years, the relations between Iran and the six oil-rich Arab countries in the Gulf has regularly shifted between friendship and hostility. Teheran’s refusal to deal with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council has nourished Arab suspicions of Iranian intentions. At the same time, the trade ties between the Islamic Republic and individual Gulf states, especially Dubai, have deepened.
Recently, Iran participated in Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council meetings as an observer, and even asked to join these organizations. However, until recently the Arab states demanded that Iran first end its occupations of three UAE islands – Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb – that it seized in 1971.
Lately, many heads of Arab countries expressed concerns that a nuclear Iran might pose a threat to security in the region. Generally, these states aspire to maintain good relations with Teheran, yet continue to rely on a US defense umbrella in case the situation deteriorates.
In late January, American sources revealed an upcoming large arms deal with Arab states in the Gulf aimed at beefing up their defenses. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are undertaking a region-wide military buildup that has resulted in more than $25 billion in US arms purchases in the past two years alone.