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The Persian Gulf row exposes the nationalistic rift between Iran and its Iraq 'backyard'

Persian Gulf
The Persian Gulf, from space [Flickr: NASA, International Space Station, 12/30/11]

Last week, the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup kicked off in Iraq for the first time in 44 years, with Basra serving as the host city for the regional biennial football tournament. Hosting the "Gulf Cup" as it is also known, was significant for the country, given the decades-long FIFA ban on hosting international football matches since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, although it has previously been temporarily lifted. The eight-nation event, which came weeks after a successful and historic World Cup in Qatar, is particularly monumental for Iraq, as it has been beset with years of conflict, sectarian violence, instability and rife corruption. As with hosting any international competitive sporting event, the Gulf Cup has given the country an opportunity to project itself in a more favourable light, both regionally and internationally.

Last week's opening ceremony included a dazzling fireworks display and a theatrical performance showcasing the 5,000-year history of the "Cradle of Civilisation". The host nation is also doing well, topping their group after a goalless draw in the opening game with Oman, having beaten Saudi Arabia 2-0 and thrashing Yemen 5-0.

However, the Gulf Cup has also been marred by controversy, when a brawl involving the Kuwaiti delegation erupted at the VIP section of the Basra International Stadium ahead of the ceremony, reportedly after the Kuwaiti Emir's representative was prevented from entering the grounds. The Iraqi Football Association has since issued an apology over the incident. Most notably, though, the naming of the Gulf as "Arabian" instead of the more historic and internationally-recognised "Persian" has led to a diplomatic row with neighbouring Iran, for whom this is a sensitive issue concerning their territorial integrity.

Noting that Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Al-Sudani, had referred to the "Arabian Gulf" Cup at the opening ceremony, as did Sadrist Movement leader, Moqtada Al-Sadr on social media, Tehran has voiced its objection to the "misnomer" and there have been calls for Baghdad to apologise over the usage of the term, which has, thus far, not happened. On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, had notified Baghdad of Tehran's objection.

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By Wednesday, things escalated slightly when the Iraqi ambassador to Iran, Naseer Abdul Mohsen, was summoned in protest over the usage of the "false" name, in spite of the "strategic, fraternal and deep relations" with Iraq. "We summoned the Iraqi ambassador to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the Iraqi authorities used a fake name for the Persian Gulf," Iranian Foreign Minister, Amir Abdollahian, was quoted as saying.

"We conveyed to the Iraqi side the sensitivity the great Iranian nation has about the (need to) use of the accurate and complete designation of the Persian Gulf," he added.

Illustrating the importance of referring to the water body as such, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency explained that "Using the fake label for the Persian Gulf is seen in Iran as a futile attempt by the Arab neighbours to distort the region's ancient history."

The decades-long dispute has been more pronounced between Iran and neighbouring Arab member States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The feelings are mutual, particularly with Saudi Arabia which competes with the Islamic Republic over influence in the region. The 2010 edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games, which was due to have been hosted in Tehran, was postponed and later cancelled after the Saudi-based Islamic Solidarity Games Federation opposed the labelling of the "Persian Gulf" on the logo. That same year, Iran warned international airlines against using the term "Arabian Gulf" on in-flight maps and that they would be barred from entering its airspace. In 2016, Oman Air apologised for displaying the offending term on their flights, owing to a "mistake" as a result of a systems update.

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Tehran's geopolitical disputes with the GCC received renewed attention only last month, when the Chinese envoy to Iran was summoned by the Foreign Ministry in protest over a joint statement released by China and the GCC during President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia. The statement called for the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands, which are claimed by both Iran and the UAE to be resolved through negotiations under the rules of international law. This was perceived as "unfriendly behaviour" against Iran's territorial integrity by the Iranian government and contrary to Beijing's established policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign countries.

Yet the recent row with Iraq is significant in that the country has, for some time, been seen as Iran's "backyard" due to the influence Tehran exerts in Iraq's internal affairs, particularly in terms of politics and security, but also due to the historic, cultural and religious ties that the two Shia-majority Muslim countries share.  Nevertheless, the rift has arguably exposed deep-seated nationalistic sentiments. Even some of the most ardent Iranian secularists opposed to the Islamic Republic would take issue with referring to the Gulf as "Arabian".  In some cases, these sentiments may supersede the strategic relations forged following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, furthermore, with Iran's support in the fight against Daesh.

It is also worth remembering that, Iran's leadership has sought to justify Iran's involvement overseas conflicts, including in Iraq as "the defence of Iran". During the height of the devastating Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini had initially hoped that Shia soldiers in the Iraqi army would take up arms alongside the Iranian forces; this didn't materialise. However, "This was not out of loyalty to the regime, necessarily, but to prevent Iraq from becoming colonised by Iran or from following in its theocratic footsteps." At the time, one western diplomatic source noted that the Iraqi Shia community has effectively been "nationalised" by the Baathist government who poured money into the shrine cities, in return for support against the Iranians.

The row over Iraq's referring to the Gulf as "Arabian" is unlikely to escalate further after Tehran sought clarifications from Baghdad, but it does illustrate the ethnic and nationalistic divergences that still exist between the two countries who, nevertheless, form integral parts of the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance. As such, the issue may be exploited in future by Iran's rivals across the Gulf in order to create a wedge between Iraq and Iran and to re-assert Iraq's Arab identity in an attempt to distance it from Iran. Speaking of the recent row, one senior Sadrist member, Issam Hussein, was quoted as saying "Iran is actually angry over Iraq's rapprochement with its Arab neighbours and it is afraid it will lead to economic and political cooperation and cost Iran its influence in Iraq."

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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