Map’s label for gulf angers Iran

THURSDAY, NOV. 25, 2004

For thousands of years, the people of ancient Persia and their descendants in modern Iran have called it the Persian Gulf.

But the National Geographic Society’s mapmakers noticed that some U.S. military agencies and other map gazers use the name “Arabian Gulf” for the body of water on Iran’s southwestern shore.

So they altered the 8th Edition of the society’s influential Atlas of the World to include Arabian Gulf as an alternate name (in parentheses) under the traditional title.

That has landed them in hot water with Iranians from Los Angeles to Tehran. Not to mention the Iranian government, which on Tuesday banned National Geographic’s publications and journalists from the country until the organization “corrects” the atlas.

The anger had been brewing for weeks. “A spit in us Iranians’ faces!!” says Padina Abbaspour in a reader-review of the atlas on the Web site. “This is you people trying to change and alter History and what is written down for generations!!”

The emotion reflects Iranians’ deep pride in their own ancient culture, and a long history of enmity toward regional Arab powers such as Iraq, with which Iran fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s.

National Geographic has received thousands of e-mails on the subject, and has posted hundreds of reader reviews of the $165 atlas, mostly from angry Iranians.

“We try to retain our independent judgment and not to be swayed by a response from a group with a particular interest,” Carroll says. In a statement on the society’s Web site, he defends the atlas, but promises to add “explanatory” and “clarifying language” to future editions.

Carroll has seen similar uproars before. “For instance, the Sea of Japan. … The Koreans want us to use the term East Sea,” he says. And the new atlas includes East Sea in parentheses.

Iranians are alleging other mapmaking insults, including a description of three tiny islands in the Gulf. Designated as Iranian in the last edition of the atlas, this time they’re labeled as “Occupied by Iran” but “claimed by the UAE (United Arab Emirates).”

That change triggered this online eruption from an entity in Los Angeles called the Iran National Front USA: “The enemies of Iran should know, so long as there is one Iranian alive with blood pumping through his or her heart, even the thought of taking one grain of Iranian soil, will strongly be opposed and defeated. Long Live Iran.”

Experts agree that the name Persian Gulf, or Khalij-e Pars, predates Arabian Gulf by a long shot. “The earliest references stemmed from the time of the Sumerian rulers in the 3rd century B.C. That ought to be old enough to establish it,” said James Bill, an Iranian specialist at the College of Willliam and Mary.

British cartographers adopted the name Persian Gulf at the turn of the last century when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed to tap Iranian oil, James E. DiLisio, professor of geography at Towson University, says. When Standard Oil of California found oil on the Arabian side of the Gulf, he says, the Americans began using Arabian Gulf on their maps in deference to their hosts.

Pan-Arab nationalists adopted the use of Arabian Gulf in the 1950s as an icon of their movement.

“There’s nothing people get more exercised about than the names of things,” Bill says.

Some organizations simply call it “the Gulf” to avoid ruffling feathers, which also angers Iranians. “History is not a commodity you buy at Wal-Mart and discard after you get your immediate use out of it,” says Mojtaba Aghamohammadi, an Iranian-born professor of diversity studies at the University of Phoenix. Iranians identify “existentially” with the name Persian Gulf, he argues, and “when you mess with people’s identity, that’s when war begins.”


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