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IRAN: Row over Persian vs. Arabian Gulf at China games ruffles Tehran's feathers

November 14, 2010 |  7:19 am

Picture 1Iran views China as its key strategic partner and shield against harsh international scrutiny when it comes to its nuclear program. 

But it didn't take long for Iranians to raise hackles of protest after organizers of the 16th Asian Games held in Guangzhou, China, referred to the Persian Gulf, the stretch of water separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, as the "Arabian Gulf."

Irked Iranian officials began to send letters of protest to the offices of their Chinese counterparts over the weekend condemning what they called name "distortion."

Iran's ambassador to China, Mehdi Safari, told Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that a number of notes protesting the incident had been sent to the Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as to the organizers of the sports event, prompting an apology from both agencies to Iran.

The run-in began during a showing of world maps at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Friday. According to Safari, the Persian Gulf had been dubbed the Arabian Gulf, as many Arabs call it, on the map of the Middle East which appeared on the big screens for a few seconds.

The ambassador played down the incident, saying it was only a mistake by the sports event organizers and didn't reflect China's foreign policy and its view of Iran. And the Chinese Foreign Ministry instructed organizations to not repeat Friday's incident and make sure that the term "Persian Gulf" and nothing else is used in the future, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported .

Iran has long insisted that the stretch of water should be called the Persian Gulf, a name many of its Arab neighbors reject in favor of the Arabian Gulf.  To avoid trouble, everyone including those from news agencies, military strategists and oil firms have begun to term it simply the Gulf.

But the Persian appellation is the most consistently used term throughout history.

The Chinese episode is one in a series of similar incidents over the years in the long-running naming dispute. Earlier this year, the Iranian authorities said that airlines will not be allowed to enter Iranian airspace unless they use the term "Persian Gulf" on their in-flight television monitors. The transport minister threatened that planes that did not comply with the order could be impounded. 

Troubles also arose when Iran insisted that the term Persian Gulf be used on medals and promotion materials for the Islamic Solidarity Games, scheduled to have been held in Tehran last April.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries due to partake in the sports event refused to comply and the games were cancelled altogether.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Illustration: A map showing the strech of water between Iran and its southern neighbors that is the subject of a longstanding naming dispute. Iran insists that it should be known as the Persian Gulf while many Arab countries say it's called the Arabian Gulf. Credit: Google maps.