Iran Cyber Front: Islamic Republic warns Google over renaming the Persian Gulf

Amid rising tensions in the region between the Islamic Republic and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the disputed island of Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian government has now threatened to take action against Google for renaming the body of water that separates the Iranian plateau and Arabian peninsula as simply the “Gulf”.

Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the latest senior official to lash out against Google for naming the body of water the “Gulf”, which Iran only recognizes as the “Persian Gulf”. In a comment targeting Google, the United States, and the Arab Gulf monarchies, Mehmanparast stated that:

“The instrumentalization of new technologies in political affairs is one of the enemy’s new actions against Iran, and Google has become an instrument in this game.”

He then warned Google about hurting the sensibilities of the Iranian people, who view the name “Persian Gulf” as part of their historical heritage:

“Certainly if Google does not use the correct name of the Persian Gulf it will be confronted by the outrage of the Iranian people…because eliminating the name of the Persian Gulf is playing with the emotions and reality of the Iranian people.”

In an interview with BBC Persian, Google’s head of public relations in the United Kingdom responded by saying that it is Google’s policy to remaining neutral on sensitive political issues. He claimed that because some people around the world call the body of water the “Arabian Gulf”, Google had simply labelled it the “Gulf” in order to remain outside the debate. When asked by the BBC Persian interviewer where else the Internet giant took a similar approach, Google’s UK PR chief was unable to respond.

Editor’s Note: Given the recent tensions over the Iranian president’s visit to Abu Musa island, it would not be surprising if Google has come under political pressure from forces in Washington and elsewhere to use the name “Gulf” for the body of water which has historically been named the “Persian Gulf”.

This move by Google has also caused an uproar among Iranians online, where many have called for a boycott of Google’s search engine and other services and a switch to alternatives such as Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

As we’ve explained in the past, the U.S. has pursued a soft power strategy toward Iran in the post-Cold War-era. Companies such as Google are very popular among Iranians and form one of the key pillars of America’s soft power strategy in cyberspace. Actions which provoke Iranian nationalism can seriously undermine the U.S. and Google’s soft power in Iran. In an ironic twist, the regime (which usually distrusts online social networks) has benefitted from the controversy, making it easier for the regime to convince its population to move toward a national intranet because it can portray the Internet as an anti-Iranian tool of foreign powers. Once again, provoking Iranian nationalism is a dangerous game which can only escalate regional and international tensions and legitimize the actions of the Islamic Republic.