In these tumultuous days, it is often hard to find a topic to unite Iranians. But now US President Donald Trump has surely found one. In his speech on Friday, he referred to the Persian Gulf, the body of water that borders the south of Iran, as the “Arabian Gulf,” immediately pissing off Iranians of just about every hue. There are widespread speculations as to whether Trump used the term knowingly or if it was a slippage. The White House official statement referred to the “Persian Gulf.” But when it came to his remarks, Trump spoke of the “freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf” in a somewhat mumbled fashion, so much so that some people missed it.
As any Iran observer can tell you, there is hardly any topic about which Iranians are more fanatical than the Persian Gulf naming dispute. If there is one thing on which the vast majority of Iranians agree with their government, this is it. Indeed, Iranians usually refer to it as the “Forever-Persian Gulf.” Even “the Gulf” as a shorthand is never acceptable. In fact, the term “Arabian Gulf” is never fully spelled out in Persian, even when the aim is to protest against its usage (people usually use the term “A Gulf” or write “Arabian” with disjointed letters.) The Arab countries surrounding the Persian Gulf might call their multilateral organization the Gulf Cooperation Council or the GCC. But the Iranian media always adds the name “Persian” to the title and even speak of the PGCC, coining a fake abbreviation for that very Arab organization.
A few hours after Trump’s speech ended on Friday afternoon, more than 100,000 Instagram users posted on Trump’s page and took to Twitter using the hashtag #PersianGulf (while a few preferred the hashtag #crazy).
People shared innovative imagery on social media, especially on the popular messaging app Telegram. An old map reminded Americans that the term Persian Gulf was used even before the discovery of the Americas. A video showed five US presidents using the term "the Persian Gulf." People shared images of US military medals and cemeteries honoring the soldiers who “served in the Persian Gulf.” People critical of the Iranian regime and with more fondness for the monarchy that it overthrew in 1979 showed a video of remarks by the late shah scolding a reporter for using the “A” word.
Many videos and pictures, especially those shared on platforms favored by hardliners, showed the US navy soldiers who were seized by the Revolutionary Guards when they entered Iranian waters in January 2016. People also shared footage of the soldiers apologizing (before being released less than 15 hours after their arrest) and Senator John McCain speaking of their “humiliation” as they were “forced to kneel with their hands clasped behind their necks in gross violation of all international law.”
People from all walks of life and holding a variety of political views protested against Trump’s use of the term. Tehran’s straight-talking reformist MP Mahmood Sadeqi stated the obvious: “Even the opponents of the regime hate the term Arabian Gulf.”
“Use of the term ‘the A Gulf’ shows where Trump gets his advice from,” tweeted Jamile Kadivar, a London-based dissident.
Mohammad Taghi Karroubi, the exiled activist whose father, Mehdi Karroubi, has been detained for six years and is known as a courageous critic of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said: “How could Trump call the Persian Gulf ‘Arabian’ and expect the Iranian people to listen to him?”
Sadra Mohagheh, a journalist with the liberal Shargh newspaper, known for his exposes of Iran’s social ills, said use of the term “shows how much Trump really thinks of Iran’s people, history and glorious civilization.”
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Iran’s former vice president who spent many years in jail and was forced to confess in show trials following the violent unrest in 2009, said Trump had “united the Iranian people” since the “Persian Gulf is a witness to Iranian pride.”
Among non-political figures speaking out, popular singer Ehsan Khaje-Amiri took to Instagram to declare that the Persian Gulf “will be always Persian.” Rambod Javan, an actor known for his comic roles, published a photograph of an Iranian ID card that showed the Persian Gulf was born on the first day of Year 1.
And there were other humorously-oriented Iranians who had their fun. “Saudis have given Trump so much money that he is even willing to rename the Gulf of Mexico the Arabian Gulf,” one tweet read.
“Time for us to rename the San Francisco Bay and call it the Dam of Karaj,” another tweet read, referring to a dam near Tehran popular with day-trippers.
But another user had a poignant reminder for fellow Iranians. “Now that we are all worried for the Persian Gulf’s name, may I remind you that just yesterday a MP said that, from the port of Bandar Abbas alone, 700 liters of wastewater is thrown into the Persian Gulf every second?”
Symbolic issues such as a dispute over a name often fan the flames of emotions more than any real issue. But, after Trump’s incendiary speech — whether he misspoke or not — in the days to come, Iranians will be faced with many more.