Washington risks entering into a game of escalating provocations with Tehran even as continuing efforts to restart talks in November are underway. Iran's announcement that the two US hikers being held Evin prison will now face trial just ahead of the talks is no coincidence. The move is particularly shameful considering that these US citizens have been held for over a year without formal charges and recently leaked military reports support the hiker's assertion that they were captured in Iraq - not in Iran. Meanwhile, last week's announcement of the largest US arms deal in history, a $60 billion deal with Saudi Arabia that includes advanced aircraft and bunker busting bombs, was clearly aimed at Tehran.
But while the package was branded as an effort to "enhance regional stability" by reassuring Persian Gulf states of the United States' commitment to their security, the State Department broke its own longstanding protocol and used provocative, ethnically divisive language when announcing the deal.
Instead of using the historically accepted term - and observing State Department protocol - "Persian Gulf", Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro referred to the "Arabian Gulf", a politically charged phrase with a relatively recent but insidious history.
While it may sound like a mere matter of semantics to some (though one could predict the diplomatic uproar if the US began referring to the "Gulf of America" along its Southern coast), in a region marred by ethnic tensions, usage of "Arabian Gulf" is a serious signal that could portend a dangerous, counterproductive path for the US ahead.
The term "Arabian Gulf" first appeared fifty years ago as Pan-Arabism propaganda aimed at unifying Arabs against Iranians, Israelis, and other non-Arabs in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein later co-opted the term to exploit ethnic rivalries in support of his regional claims and territorial ambitions, including his invasion of Iran and his campaigns against Iraqi Kurds. Later, Osama Bin Laden adopted the term in an attempt to stir ethnic rivalries to bolster his appeal among Arab populations.
The State Department's sudden use of "Arabian Gulf" can only stoke tensions in the region. The move could foreshadow deterioration back to the mutual demonization that characterized much of the previous Administration's Iran approach. President Obama successfully reigned in much of that counterproductive rhetoric and, while there has been little reciprocation from Tehran, managed to earn back significant credibility necessary for US leadership on the global stage. But by flying in the face of protocol and using the term "Arabian Gulf", the State Department risks backsliding to a posture in which the US once again bargains away its moral authority in exchange for caustic, emotionally satisfying insults.
Such an ethnically divisive term sends the wrong message, particularly coming just weeks ahead of planned talks with Iran. Successful engagement will be difficult enough without the US drawn into a toxic tit for tat with the Iranian government. Just as the US rightfully criticizes Tehran's bombastic rhetoric--including Ahmadinejad's deliberately insensitive remarks about 9/11 last month in New York--Washington must not be tempted to take that bait and engage in a duel of counterproductive provocations.
Ethnically divisive rhetoric, in addition to posing new diplomatic hurdles, may also signal a dangerous new strategy. Some analysts have urged that the US should fuel ethnic rivalries in the Middle East in hope that this will pressure and contain Iran while bolstering US security interests. But the history of the Middle East is one in which such tensions have only brought conflict and increased instability. Washington's flirtation with a strategy to exacerbate ethnic divisions will fuel accusations that the US is engaged in efforts to fund ethnic separatist groups in Iran and around region. Already, Tehran accuses the Al Qaeda-linked Baluch organization Jundallah, which has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran, of receiving funding and guidance from the US.
It is not yet clear if the Assistant Secretary's statement was a misnomer or if this is was a calculated policy decision by the State Department. But we do know that the Middle East is wrought with destabilizing fault lines based on ethnic and religious tensions. The last thing that the US should do is exacerbate those tensions in a shortsighted bid to pressure Iran. A reversion to Bush-era mudslinging and saber rattling can only diminish the cachet the Obama Administration has managed to restore through its more sober public rhetoric towards Iran. Succumbing to the level of trading barbs with Ahmadinejad will not boost confidence in US leadership. Secretary Clinton or the President himself must reign in this rhetoric at the State Department immediately and ensure that this is not part of a broader policy decision that can only increase instability and help ensure diplomatic failure.