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RADIO HOLLAND NETHERLAMD

nullTehran is outraged by a decision by National Geographic magazine to describe the sea between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as the Arabian Gulf, rather than the Persian Gulf.

The cartographers insist they've used both names in their latest atlas, but Iran won't buy it. The Tehran government has even unearthed some ancient maps to prove its point.

In this interview with Radio Netherlands, historian Ali Ansari of the University of St Andrews in the UK explains what the fuss is all about:

"The Iranians have always been very sensitive about the naming of the Gulf, which they consider to be the Persian Gulf, with some justification of course because it's the legal name and the name used by the United Nations and the United States. Only, actually, the British government and some European governments tend to use this rather neutral term 'the Gulf'."

Audio_Real_bevel.jpg - click to listen to the interview, 3'24

"It's a response really to developments that occurred in the 1950s and 60s with the rise of Arab nationalism. [Egyptian president] Nasser in particular used to like to irritate the Shah of Iran by calling it 'the Arab Gulf'. And the Iranians sort of feel: 'There is an Arabian Sea, there's a Gulf of Oman, so why don't you just leave the Persian Gulf as it is,' which they argue - with I think considerable justification - is the historic name of that waterway."

RN: "But the Iranian foreign minister has even gone as far as saying that this was an attempt to misinterpret history and could even be politically motivated. Isn't that going a bit far?"

"I think it is in terms of what National Geographic is about. As far as I can see, National Geographic did call it the Persian Gulf, but then added in brackets the Arabian Gulf. Because what they do is they try and show where names are disputed."

"But it is more unusual for the Americans to do this than it is, for instance, in Europe. I think there was one publisher in the UK, for instance, that actually called it the Arabian Gulf and it caused something of a fuss, but not as much as this.'"

"So, I suspect this has a lot more to do with the fact that national and nationalist sentiment in Iran is very sensitive, very heightened at the moment. They see this as tension between Iran and the US. But I agree, in a way, that it's been exploited very much to maximise the sense of grievance, to show the perfidy of the United States."

"But that's somewhat exaggerating the motivation. I don't think National Geographic is necessarily an arm of the US government or anything. But certainly, I think, this is really more to do with galvanising the nationalist mood and exploiting the nationalist mood in Iran, which of course is very profound at the moment."

RN: "You say national sentiment is rising at the moment. Is it a lot stronger than what we've seen? Does it mean that Western powers have to really tiptoe around Iran more, so as not to inflame it on more minor issues as well?"

"Well, I think at this particular time, the government sees a lot of benefit. I mean, it's somewhat ironic, given that we're talking about a government that is essentially following an Islamic ideology. But, actually, what it understands is that, to keep the people on side, it has to follow a really strong nationalist programme and, therefore, these sort of things are very useful for it to sort of get the people together, get a certain amount of unity."

"This nationalist sentiment in Iran has been growing almost daily since the Islamic Revolution [of 1979] in actual fact. It's almost a reaction to the government, which has been overtly Islamic in its orientation, and talking of Islamic unity."

"The people, society, on the other hand, has reacted to that and tended to become much more Persian and Iranian in its outlook and tended not to play on this Islamic card. And it's one of these great paradoxes of course that, when they argued, even in the early days of the revolution that they should rename the Persian Gulf the Islamic Gulf or something like this, the Iranians were very much opposed to this. They thought this was an outrageous suggestion and however much they were the Islamic Republic they certainly were the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian element was still very, very central."