The power of technology has been the biggest enemy of authoritarian regimes. Iranians' only means of contact with the outside world throughout the sixteen years that I lived there used to be the state-run TV news and BBC Persian radio, which has a notoriously poor quality because of the Iranian government's tendency to create interfering radio waves. But in the twenty-first century, the internet with website block removers and illegal satellite TVs have enabled Iranians to read the New York Times on their monitor screens in Tehran and watch Oprah Winfrey and the coverage of America's elections at night with their families.
So this past weekend, I decided to sit back and enjoy some of the benefits of technology by opening up Google Earth. I particularly wanted to zoom in and see how many illegal satellites I could locate on Iranians' rooftops. But as I was glancing over the southern part of the country, I noticed something so extraordinary that it made me instantly forget what I was looking for; there they were, two words written on the Persian Gulf's body of water: "Arabian Gulf." I could not believe my eyes. There it was the gulf with a completely new name out of nowhere and based on not a single legitimate history of geography book.
Convinced that fellow Iranians who have noticed this must be completely outraged, I opened another technology tool that I use to spot trends: Facebook! I figured if Persians are as outraged as I was, there must already be a group made to express that outrage. To little surprise, my search yielded over twenty different groups, three of which claimed over 2,000 members each, all with the sole purpose of emphasizing what has always been a geographical fact: the name of the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula has always been Persian Gulf. What I also noticed was that one of the multi-thousand-member groups aimed to collect signatures for a petition that calls on Google to stop renaming Persian Gulf based on no historical or international precedent. As this article is published, the petition has been signed by 53,353 people.
Some people may be interested in getting into a geographical debate on what should the Gulf really be called. Some may try to debate on whether Persians or Arabs have a bigger claim over the name. We can have the same debate over the Gulf of Mexico. While such a discussion is legitimate, that's not what I'm interested in discussing here. What I do have a problem with is that a company like Google can misuse its power, influence and popular reach to spread hurtful misinformation about matters as sensitive as this in direct contradiction to the historical and geographical consensus.
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Persians have found their 7,000-year-old unique culture and heritage under assault by a band of mullahs who have been shoving Sharia law and Arabic words and culture down their throats. Throughout this time, Iranians have watched as their country has take a vertical dive from being one of the greatest and most respected countries in the region to a rogue state with no unified identity or respect on the world stage. In light of this short tragic history, all most Persians have been left with is the Iran map on their walls and the belief in their hearts that one day, they will preserve their Persian identity and dignity in the world.
In that context, Persian Gulf has come to mean a whole lot more than just a name used to refer to a puddle of water. It has become a symbol of everything that Iranians have been left with to remind them of who they used to be. Changing the name Persian Gulf would be equivalent to taking away what little water one may have left away from him as he thirsts to death in the middle of a desert.
The United Nations has repeatedly recognized the name of this body of water as the "Persian Gulf" and asked all member nations to use the same name. In 2006, the U.N. reiterated its belief in "Persian Gulf" - as opposed to anything else, even including "The Gulf" - as the only appropriate name to be used to refer to this body of water. And in the same year, U.N.'s Group of Experts on Geographical Names issued a paper titled "Historical, Geographical and Legal Validity of the Name: PERSIAN GULF (PDF)," in which they emphasized the correct name and notably wrote, "any change, destruction, or alteration of the names registered in historical deeds and maps is like the destruction of ancient works and is considered as an improper action. Therefore, the names of geographical features profiting from a unique historical identity, should not be utilized as political instruments in reaching a political, tribal, and racial objective, or in any clash with national interests and other's values."
I find it deeply disheartening that Google finds it acceptable to go out of its way to rename Persian Gulf without understanding the deeply hurtful impact that such an action can have on the Iranians who are holding on to the memory of their Persian identity and history that they see slipping away little by little every single day. This action by Google is not as outrageous as its decision in 2006 to comply with the Chinese government's demand and censor its internet search service in China in order to get access to its market. But when it comes to Google's significant hold on search engine and virtual globe technologies, it is important to highlight what a wide reaching effect little pieces of misinformation can have in shaking the feeling of security and identity of tens of millions of people throughout the world.
It's my hope that Google will listen to the voices of tens of thousands of people, acknowledge the significance of unilaterally changing the name of an entire body of water in direct inconsistency with the international consensus and begin to call it what it has always been called: Persian Gulf.
United Nations secretariat's decision on the naming dispute
A French Map, dated 1740