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Iran: Many Up In Arms About U.S. Magazine's Use Of 'Arabian Gulf'

The Gulf Iranians around the world are up in arms over the publication of the National Geographic Society's new "Atlas of the World." The uproar is over the inclusion of "Arabian Gulf" as a secondary name for the "Persian Gulf," the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Iran insists the area has for centuries been called the Persian Gulf. In protest, the government in Tehran has banned the sale of "National Geographic" magazine until the secondary name is removed. What's in a name?

Prague, 7 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The protests began with emails.

Several Iranians living in the United States noticed that in the new edition of the National Geographic Society's "Atlas of the World," "Arabian Gulf" was listed as a secondary name in parentheses for the body of water long known as the "Persian Gulf."

Alarmed, these Iranians abroad informed activists and reporters inside Iran.

"This issue actually started with e-mails by several Iranians living in Virginia, who have a subscription to National Geographic's atlas. Then a lengthy article was published in the reformist daily 'Shargh' in Tehran. After that, a wave of protests was generated against this move by the National Geographic Society in Iran's main dailies with different political affiliations," says Pejman Akbarzadeh, a young journalist and member of Artists Without Frontiers in Tehran.

More than 70,000 Iranians have signed an Internet petition titled "The Persian Gulf Will Remain Persian." It calls the new map "fraudulent and distorted" and demands an immediate correction.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government has banned National Geographic reporters from traveling to Iran and prohibited the sales of its publications until the company corrects the eighth edition of its world atlas.

Throughout history, the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula has been known as the "Persian Gulf." Most countries and international organizations still employ that name, though Arab nations tend to use "Arabian Gulf."

The United Nations adopted two documents -- one in 1971, the other in 1984 -- officially recognizing the area as the "Persian Gulf."

In a statement on its website, the National Geographic Society says that while it considers "Persian Gulf to be the primary name, it has been the society's cartographic practice to display a secondary name in parentheses when the use of such a name has become commonly recognized."

The National Geographic website has reportedly been flooded with protest emails from Iranians living in America. There are also reports of Iranians canceling their subscription to National Geographic Society publications.

The Internet is full of other pro-Persian Gulf activism. Type in "Arabian Gulf" in the popular Google search engine and up pop several web pages with messages such as: "The Gulf you're looking for does not exist .The correct name is Persian Gulf, which always has been and will remain, Persian."

Many Iranians consider the map offensive to Iran's ancient past.

"The people of Iran have always been very sensitive to any move to change this name or use a Persian Arabic name because they consider it a transgression on their historical memory and historical past and from this angle we can say that it has a scientific dimension and also a strong symbolic value because it is interconnected with the identity of a great civilization," says Saeed Peyvandi, a professor of sociology in Paris who specializes on Iran.

Akbarzadeh says the issue is being discussed even in the streets of Tehran.

"Many [people talked about it], in shops, in taxis, places you wouldn't even think of. Most Iranians referring to historical and geographical documents and also statements by the UN are calling for the correction of this mistake and the re-publishing of the 'Atlas,'" Akbarzadeh says.

Mohammad Ala is a professor of business in California and Iran and the president of the Persian Gulf organization, which seeks to preserve the gulf's heritage and sovereignty. He tells RFE/RL that there has been an outcry among Iranians across the world.

"We have received more than 4,000 e-mails from all over the world," Ala says. "Surprisingly, we have received emails from China, we have a lot of emails from Canada, several from France, Japan, we have several from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait. In total, more than 40 countries are represented in the emails."

Iranians generally have a lot of national pride. Observers such as Professor Peyvandi say those sentiments have grown stronger since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

"Since after the 1979 revolution, there has been a tendency to 'Arabize' the country -- for example, the reintroduction of Arabic courses in schools," Peyvandi says. "This has always caused sensitivity among people and they have become more concerned with preserving their national identity and past, especially because this identity has so often been criticized by the Islamic establishment of Iran and because of that, people are even more sensitive."

For sensitive Iranians, however, there are signs their protests might be bearing fruit, according to Reza Pahlavi, Iran's former crown prince who lives in the United States.

His press office says in a statement issued yesterday that John M. Fahey, the head of the National Geographic Society, has personally told Pahlavi that his organization is "in the midst of an in-depth study and reflection on the merits of the use of a secondary name for the Persian Gulf."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.