• 21 July 2012
  • Posted By Roshan Alemi
  • Diplomacy, US-Iran War

A Wakeup Call in the Persian Gulf

USNS Rappahannock, right, with the USS James E. Williams

USNS Rappahannock, right, with the USS James E. Williams

Earlier this week, many in Washington held their breath after the U.S. Navy announced that the USNS Rappahannock had resorted to “lethal force” and fired on a small vessel in the Persian Gulf that had rapidly approached the U.S. ship.  Although we subsequently learned that it was Indian fishermen – not Iranian sailors – who had been shot, the incident illustrates just how dangerous the situation in the Persian Gulf really is.

What would have happened if the fishing boat had in fact been an Iranian naval vessel? Could the incident have escalated into armed conflict? It’s not hard to imagine a dangerous escalation when the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations has no way of communicating with his Iranian counterpart.

The U.S. has managed to convey messages to Iran in a number of ways – from working through the Swiss to sending letters through the Turkish prime minister.  But the reality is that sending letters by courier is utterly insufficient when people are shooting at each other.

It is shocking that, in a time of crisis, the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations cannot pick up the phone and prevent the situation from spiraling out of control by talking to Iran’s naval commanders.  Given the tensions between the U.S. and Iran and the close proximity of U.S. and Iranian vessels operating in the Persian Gulf every day, it is downright dangerous that we do not have such a simple capability.

When U.S. military officials floated the idea of setting up a naval hotline late last year, the response from Iran was mixed. Some in the Iranian leadership welcomed the idea, while the IRGC was dismissive, perhaps because the U.S. sought to have a hotline with the traditional Iranian navy instead of with the IRGC’s naval forces.

The U.S. response was to quietly drop the idea.  The U.S. normally spares no expense to protect U.S. troops and sailors around the world. But in this case, apparently no one was willing to expend any political capital to advance the proposal further, despite its obvious benefits.

As the incident with the Indian fishing boat makes clear, a naval hotline is still very much needed to contain any future incidents.  It would be even better if the U.S. simultaneously reached an Incidents at Sea agreement to prevent shots from ever being fired in the first place by making sure everyone understands the “rules of the road” in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

As Admiral Mike Mullen said shortly before he retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union.” But until we set up similar communications channels with Iran, one of Adm. Mullen’s last warnings remains very true:  “If something happens [with Iran], it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations, which would be extremely dangerous.”

Posted By Roshan Alemi

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Sign the Petition


7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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