The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup football tournament, held in January 2023 in Basra, Iraq, sparked diplomatic tensions between Iraq and Iran by reigniting the old argument over the use of the name Arabian Gulf, favored by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, as opposed to Persian Gulf, which is favored by Iran. The tournament – which the Arab media refers to simply as the Khaliji (i.e., Gulf) tournament – has been held since 1970, usually once in two years, with the participation of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait), as well as Iraq and Yemen. This year, as in the past, many called it by its official name, the Arabian Gulf Cup, which angered Iran.
The hosting of the game in Iraq, for first time in 43 years, was also a source of tension, since it reignited feelings of Arab nationalism in the country, which in the recent years has been under Iranian hegemony. Locals in Basra expressed great joy over the privilege of hosting the tournament, and prepared a warm welcome for the many fans from the Gulf who came to the city for the games. Many even hosted fans in their homes for free. In addition, the Iraqi press published many articles that celebrated the sense of Arab nationalism that swept the city during the games, highlighted the tournament's contribution to strengthening the ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf, and called for Iraq to "return to the Arab fold."
Iraqi leaders and politicians likewise welcomed the holding of the tournament in Iraq, and many of them chose to refer to it as the Arabian Gulf Cup. A January 6 post on the official Facebook page of the Iraqi prime minister, Muhammad Shiaꞌ Al-Sudani, reported that Al-Sudani had "declared the opening of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup at the international stadium in Basra." The leader of Iraq's Sadrist movement, Muqtada Al-Sadr, tweeted a welcoming message to "the honorable Arab guests from the Arabian Gulf" who had come to the country for the games.
The warm welcome given to the Arab visitors from the Gulf, and the use of the name Arabian Gulf by Iraqi officials, were anathema to Iran. On January 7, Iran's Football Federation announced on its website that it intended to lodge a complaint with FIFA about the use of the name Arabian Gulf Cup, stressing that Persian Gulf is the historical name used in all languages and on all maps, old and new. Iranian Majlis member Valiollah Bayati condemned the statements of the Iraqi prime minister and of Muqtada Al-Sadr, and demanded that they apologize. Several days later, on January 11, it was reported that Iran had summoned the Iraqi ambassador, Nasir 'Abd Al-Muhsin 'Abdallah, to express its protest. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian explained that the ambassador had been summoned because of the Iraqi authorities' use of the "fake name" Arabian Gulf, and to clarify the Iranian people's sensitivity to the use of the correct name, Persian Gulf. Foreign Minister spokesperson Nasser Kanaani stressed that the correctness of the name Persian Gulf was a historical fact – permanent, documented and undeniable – and that the repeated use of the fake name did not make it legitimate or change the truth.
Anger over the use of the name Arabian Gulf was also expressed in the Iranian press. The daily Arman-e Emrooz published an article titled "[Iraqi Prime Minister] Al-Sudani Is Following in the Footsteps of Saddam Hussein," and an article titled "Insolence" in the Iranian paper Mardom Salari complained that "Baghdad's insolence… has reached the point where Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaꞌ Al-Sudani has used the fake name Arabian Gulf."
Despite Iran's anger, Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Sudani not only failed to apologize but stuck to his position in an interview he gave on Germany's Deutsche Welle channel during a visit to Berlin. Asked whether "the gulf is Arabian or Persian," he replied: "The [existence of] the Arabian Gulf countries is a fact, and I do not want to address the problems that some people are trying to stir up. We respect every opinion, but today we are part of the Arab system and are committed to maintaining our ties with the countries of the Arabian Gulf. The recent tournament is obviously an opportunity for these countries to get together in Iraq, after almost 43 years." The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a January 16 statement that Iraq's relations with its surroundings had entered a "new phase," and that the hosting of the games in Basra was "an opportunity to strengthen the unilateral ties between Iraq and the countries of the Arabian Gulf."
Others in Iraq rejected the Iranian criticism as well. 'Issam Hussein, an official in the Sadrist movement, said that the demand voiced by the Iranian parliament that Muqtada Al-Sadr apologize for using the name Arabian Gulf stemmed from Iran's fear of losing its influence in Iraq, now that the games have brought Iraq closer to its Arab surroundings. Montadhar Nasser, editor-in-chief of the Iraqi online daily New World, said that Iran's summoning of the Iraqi ambassador "contravened diplomatic norms and is a dangerous precedent reflecting Iran's ambition of interfering in and controlling even the official discourse in Iraq."
The conflict also found expression in the Iraqi press, which, as stated, published articles expressing pride in Iraq's Arab identity and satisfaction over the hosting of the games, which had enabled Iraq to return to the Arab fold and strengthen its relations with its neighbors in the Gulf. These articles claimed that the Arab identity of the Gulf was an obvious historical fact, and that the real reason for Iran's fury was its fear of losing its influence in Iraq. Conversely, other articles attacked the Gulf states and accused them of trying to spark a quarrel between Iraq and Iran. One of these articles even claimed that, during the games, Iraq should have hung its streets with posters of the "heroes" of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, chief of them the late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, heroes who defended Iraq and thanks to whom it was able host the Gulf Cup.
Left: The football stadium in Basra (Aljazeera.net, January 5, 2023); right: a reception hall for visiting dignitaries in the city (atheer.com, January 6, 2023)
The following are translated excerpts from some of these Iraqi articles:
Iraqi Writer: Iran Was Struck Speechless At The Sight Of The Iraqis Uniting Around Their Arab Brethren
Iraqi journalist Iyad Al-Dulaimi contended in his column in the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid that the show of Arab solidarity in Basra alarmed Iran and increased its fear of losing its influence in Iraq. The Gulf Cup, he added, may indeed increase the presence of the Arab Gulf states in the country. He wrote: "…Iran's objection [to the name of the tournament] seems to be motivated by many fears, especially considering that the tournament is officially known as the Arabian Gulf Cup and considering that the Gulf states held it in past years without encountering any Iranian objections to its name… The issue goes beyond a [simple] controversy over a name or a term, as observers might think. Tehran, which had begun to realize that its influence [in Iraq] was waning during the October 2019 revolution, felt it [even] more keenly during the Arabian Gulf Cup, hosted in Basra. Although Basra, like other Iraqi cities, is controlled by Iran's proxies, and despite Iran's efforts to force Iraq away from its Arab surroundings, what happened during this tournament rearranged things in a way that Iran found deeply troubling. The [people of] Basra's sense of belonging to the Arab fold was clear and conspicuous, and their effort, along with all the Iraqis, to welcome their Gulf guests with the utmost respect was very telling.
"For 20 years, the Iraqi media controlled by Iran's proxies has tried to demonize everything Arab… Iran has invested great efforts in causing the Iraqis to doubt their Arab identity, to the extent of supporting some elements [in Iraq] that say that the Iraqi nation has nothing to do with the Arabs… Had Iran's 20 years of efforts in Iraq borne fruit and caused a rift between the people of Basra and the people of the Gulf, then the Arabian Gulf Cup could have been held without encountering any Iranian objections. But what [Iran actually] saw went far beyond anything it had expected or imagined.
"The October  revolution was the [first] spark that jeopardized Iran's influence in Iraq, but what happened in Basra [during the tournament] aroused all of Iran's fears about gradually losing its influence [there], which it has built over 20 years with the help of its political, religious, economic, social and even cultural proxies… Iran was struck speechless when it saw the Iraqis unite around their Arab and Gulf brethren – a sight that Iran had deluded itself into believing would not quickly be seen.
"True, the Arabs made a mistake when they left Baghdad as easy prey for the greedy Iranians… They [also] made a mistake the day [they let] Washington convinced them that it would not leave Iraq as easy prey for the greedy Iranians. Today it behooves them to reorder their priorities, for Iraq does not need their support or money. It only needs them to come back to it, so it can come back to them… The Arabian Gulf Cup in Basra may be an opening for greater Arab Gulf presence in Iraq, especially given that the current Iraqi government does not object to such presence in any way, even if it angers Iran. It realizes that this Arab Gulf presence can first of all help change Iraq's stereotyped image, and can also help the Iraqi public feel like an integral part of the Arab fold."
Iraqi Columnist: The Tournament Was A Political Celebration That Highlighted Iraq's Arab Identity
Mazen Al-Hassouni, a columnist for the independent Iraqi daily Sawt Al-Iraq, also held that Iran is concerned about the growing ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbors, which was reflected in the warm welcome given by the people of Basra to the guests from the Gulf and in the general atmosphere during the tournament. He wrote: "This is the first time in over 50 years since the first Gulf Cup that Iran has appealed to FIFA to express objections to the tournament's name… I believe that the main reason for this, alongside other reasons, is its fear of the strong bond among the people of the Gulf region, which was revealed in this tournament, and of the significant popular warmth [that exists] between the people of the Gulf and the Iraqis. This indicates that all the attempts of the Gulf sheikhs and of sectarian [i.e., Shi'ite] Islamic Iraqi parties cultivated by Iran to drive a wedge between the Iraqis and their brothers in the Gulf never bore fruit. On the contrary, we saw and heard [mutual] praise and eagerness to strengthen the fraternity and closeness between the two sides – the Iraqis and the peoples of the Gulf – despite all the attempts to sow religious and sectarian division [among them]. Iran also remembers the position of the Gulf [states] that supported Iraq during the first Gulf war, and fears that this relationship may reemerge…
"Basra and its residents, who shouldered the great responsibility of showcasing the character of the Iraqi people – its kindness, generosity and patriotism – to the other peoples, discharged this duty in an exemplary manner, so much so that the guests from the Gulf were embarrassed by this spontaneous giving, which reflected the authenticity of these virtues despite all the poverty and deprivation the city has suffered…
"These people's great love is given only to Iraq. It is this love that unites them and scares the sectarian [i.e., Shi'ite] forces and their supporters abroad [i.e., Iran]. This was not [just] a football tournament – it was an opportunity to express the Iraqis' joy and unity, break the political and social barriers of fear and eliminate all the foreign and bad values that the [pro-Iranian] parties of destruction, corruption and oppression wanted to establish over [the ruins] of our people's heritage. They did not realize the tournament would take such a direction against them and against everything they built over the unfortunate years of their rule.
"Bravo to our people… Bravo to the people of Basra who showed kindness, honor, sincerity and fraternity towards others, regardless of their identity, nationality, religion and ethnicity, because that is how they have been raised for generations. Bravo, for they are restoring Basra to its true [Arab] origins, which all the filthy foreign cultures imported by the [pro-Iranian] parties of oppression and ignorance that control the city and Iraq have not [managed to] eradicate. Did I not say that this was not just a football tournament? It was a political, social and cultural festival and a clear and open declaration by the Iraqis, who yearn for a real change that will reemphasize their original identity."
Arabs roll out red rug for Iraq to return to the Arab fold, and Iran plants mines under it (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, January 21, 2023)
Iraqi Columnist: Iran Believes Iraq Is Part Of Its Territory And Wants To Prevent Its Return To The Arab Fold
Ahmad Sadiq, also a columnist for the independent Iraqi daily Sawt Al-Iraq, wrote that the real reason for Iran's objection to the tournament's name is that it regards Iraq as part of its territory and does not want it to become part of its Arab surroundings again. He wrote: "…This artificial scandal manufactured by Iran over the term 'Arabian Gulf' exposes, more than anything, its evil intention to sabotage Iraq's return to its Arab surroundings… and its wish for the tournament to fail…
"The first Arabian Gulf Cup took place in 1970 in Bahrain, and since then it has repeatedly taken place in the Gulf. Iraq has won it three times. In all those cases the tournament was called 'the Arabian Gulf Cup' and Iran never objected to this. So why is it objecting now, when the games are taking place in Basra under the same official name…? I believe that the Iranians feel that, historically, Iraq was an Iranian province and that it must remain so. Iran still maintains this obsolete nationalist and racist notion, that Iraq is part of Iran and must stay that way. We do not forget that, a few months after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, one of Iran's turbaned mullahs proudly and arrogantly declared that Iraq is an Iranian province and an inherent part of Iranian territory.
"The Gulf states believe that the Gulf is exclusively Arab, and are not thinking of crossing over to the Iranian [camp], whereas Iran believes that the Gulf is Persian and is thinking of crossing it and extending [its influence zone] to the states on its other side."
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Columnist For Iraqi Daily: The Name Arabian Gulf Reflects A Solid Geographical And Historical Reality
In a column titled "The Gulf Will Forever Be Blatantly Arab" in the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman, 'Amar Al-Rabi'i argued that the name Arabian Gulf is supported by historical and geographical facts. He wrote:
"It is strange that some people call the Arabian Gulf by other names based on false and fraudulent reasons. [The Gulf] has been called by various names since the times before Christ, but none of them associate it with a non-Arab country. All these names imply that it is Arab, such as the name Chaldean Sea. Who were the Chaldeans? Were then not Arabs?!
"Yet some people use various expressions and names as they see fit. That is their business, but it does not change the facts, which have been in place since before the birth of Christ… Maps from 1634 call it the 'Arabian Gulf' in Latin, and the Byzantines used the same name. The one who coined it was first-century Roman historian Pliny the Younger… The name Sea of Basra goes back to the time of the Islamic victory in the era of the Righteous Caliph 'Omar Al-Khattab, and it was also used by the first grammarians, such as Al-Khalil Bin Ahmad Al-Farahidi, geographers such as Yaqut Al-Hamawi, historians like Khalifa Bin Khayat and Al-Dhahabiand several religious scholars. Some of Arabs in the Abbasid Caliphate called it the Gulf of Iraq, but the name Arabian Gulf remained in use [as well]. Dr. 'Imad Al-Hafiz notes that 'the name Arabian Gulf goes back to pre-Islamic times and persisted after the advent in Islam among the people of the Arabian Peninsula and its region. The Ottomans called it the Gulf of Basra'…
"What lends even more [validity] to this name is the fact that the Gulf has 3,300 km of shoreline, and that only 1,100 km [of shoreline] is in Iran whereas the other 2,200 km belong to the Arab countries on two sides of the Gulf, to the south and to the west, namely the sultanate of Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On the northern side are Iraq and the Arab [areas] that are currently under Iranian control, such as Arabistan [i.e., Ahwaz] and the three Arab Islands.
"Moreover, modern studies have begun to stress that calling the Arabian Gulf 'Persian' has no basis in reality, since it has been Arab since prehistoric times. Furthermore, the Arab tribes have been living on either side of it since the dawn of time, and are still living [even] on its northern shore, which is occupied by Iran, despite Iran's policy of Persianization, which is intended to erase their national identity. The widely-used name Arabian Gulf conforms to the established geographical reality, for the Gulf's association with the Arabs was tight, both before and after the advent of Islam… The Gulf will continue to be called Arabian, and all the hollow and baseless claims [to the contrary] are worthless."
The "Arabian Gulf" is bewildered by "the Iranian regime's" insistence on calling it "Persian" (Al-Arab, London, January 17, 2023)
Shi'ite Iraqi Journalists Attack Gulf States
Conversely, Shi'ite Iraqi journalists supported Iran's position and accused the Gulf states of trying to create strife between Iraq and Iran. Iraq, they said, should actually stress its affiliation with Iran rather than with the Arabs, since the "heroes" of Iran's IRGC and of the Iran-backed Iraqi militias are the ones who have protected it and enabled it to survive.
Iraqi Political Analyst: If It Were Not For Qassem Soleimani And The Heroic Martyrs, We Wouldn't Have Been Able To Host The Games
In an article published on the website of the independent Iraqi news agency Buratha, Manhal 'Abd Al-Amir Al-Murshadi, an Iraqi media advisor and political analyst, wrote that the guests from the Gulf should have been greeted with pictures of the "martyred heroes": the late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the late deputy commander of Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who were killed by the U.S. in 2020, and other slain fighters of the Iran-backed Iraqi militias – since without them Iraq would not have existed today. He wrote:
"The Iraqi people in general, and the people of Basra in particular, can be proud of the 25th Gulf Cup in Basra. The games' opening ceremony superseded even the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Doha in both its magnificent beauty and its content… Another thing I noticed was the large and extravagant reception halls in which some of the Basra sheikhs welcomed hundreds of guests from Iraq and the Gulf for a festive meal, which, in both form and substance, was more sumptuous than the festive meals held by many presidents, kings and sultans and reflected the endless Iraqi generosity, which befits Iraq…
"[However], I had hoped that these reception halls and the streets would be hung with pictures of those who defended Iraq's prestige and essence, the victorious martyred heroes [Abu Mahdi] Al-Muhandis, his guest [Qassem] Soleimani, and the [other] martyrs from all the divisions of our armed forces [who followed] the fatwa of the supreme religious authority [Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani]. [Their pictures should have been hung] so that the world would know those martyrs… who preserved our prestige, honor and state, without whom we could not have hosted the Gulf [Cup], and perhaps we would not have been here [at all]…"
Iraqi Columnist: "The Desert Arabs", The Uncultured Bedouins Who Instigate Quarrels Between Iraq And Iran, Will Not Teach Us The Meaning Of Arabhood
Buratha columnist Na'im Al-Hashemi Al-Khafaji directed harsh words at the Saudis and the other Gulf peoples, saying that these "desert Arabs" have always interfered in the internal affairs of Arab countries, including Iraq, and brought disasters upon them, and that today they are instigating strife between Iraq and Iran. He wrote: "Unfortunately for every Arab country who suffers internal disputes, the desert Arabs [i.e., the Saudis and the peoples of the Gulf states] push their noses into its affairs and cause death and destruction. We have a black and terrifying history [full of such examples, including] their intervention in the Palestinian cause and in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain… The desert Arabs [also] intervened in the affairs of Iraq during the Ba'th era [under] that dead rat Saddam [Hussein]. They instigated unjust wars between us and Iran, and between us and Kuwait, and interfered in Iraq by sending battalions of suicide bombers and [other] terrorists, and by means of the fatwa issued by [Sheikh Yousuf] Al-Qaradawi and by 55 Wahhabi Saudi sheikhs…
"The name 'Arabian Gulf' is not new. History books may call it the Gulf of Basra, the Arabian Gulf or the Persian Gulf, but that does not in any way change the reality, which is that the Arab and Islamic peoples are fighting one another. What good is Arabhood when thousands of Iraqi citizens are imprisoned in Saudi desert jails, when hundreds of Iraqis are imprisoned in Kuwait and when [the Gulf states] turned in hundreds [of Iraqis] to the intelligence apparatuses of the dead rat Saddam Hussein, to face a fate of execution or murder?...
"When we see the sectarian [i.e., Sunni] media battalions igniting [conflict] over the name 'Arabian Gulf [Cup]' in order to provoke our neighbor Iran, which has over 2,000 km of coastline along that gulf, [we regard it as] natural. This Bedouin Wahhabi media [also] stuck its nose into the discourse over Iran's summoning of the Iraqi ambassador to protest against the use of the name 'Arabian Gulf' – [even though] the Iranian government actually congratulated the Iraqi team on its win and its ascent to the next stage, and called it 'the sister Iraqi team.' This expression angered the media forces of the takfiri Wahhabi gangs and their mouthpieces. I wish the Saudi regime would change its policy of accusing the Shi'ites of heresy, omit fatwas that accuse them of heresy, which are learned in Saudi Arabia's state schools, and stop spreading lies against the Shi'ites in the official Wahhabi Islamic universities. [Only] when the Saudi regime starts regarding its Shi'ite citizens as equal, and stops accusing the Shi'ites in the Arab countries, including in Iraq, of heresy, will it be entitled to talk about the Arabhood of Iraq and of the Shi'ites. We are Arabs, no matter what the reactionary Arab countries that are agents of imperialism think about it, and we do not need the imperialist agents to provide us with proof that we are Arabs and Muslims...
"Those who call the Shi'ites [by the derogatory term] rawafid [lit. 'rejectionists'] and 'Persians', have they not read Arab and Islamic history in any depth? Have they not read the reliable compilations of Hadith [prophetic traditions] written by Persians? Have they never examined the origin of the founders of their four Sunni schools of thought, all of whom were Persian? Their greatest scientists and historians are [also] Persian. Furthermore, there are still Sunni Baluchis and Kurds living in Iran, and Iran has not turned them into Shi'ites. So how can [anyone claim] that Iran is trying to convert people to the Shi'a outside its borders? [Those who make these claims] are people with rotten brains, weak uncultured Bedouins…"
 Twitter.com/al_dhafiri89, January 11, 2023; Aljazeera.net, January 5, 2023.
 Facebook.com/IraqiPMO, January 6, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Mu_AlSad, January 5, 2023.
 Tehrantimes.com, January 7, 2023.
 Alarabiya.net, January 9, 2023.
 Isna.ir/news, January 11, 12, 2023.
 Isna.ir/news, January 17, 2023.
 Pishkhan.com, January 18, 2023.
 Mardomsalari.ir, January 7, 2023.
 Shafaq.com, January 14, 2023; Youtube.com, January 17, 2023.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 17, 2023. In a meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein expressed Iraq's desire to strengthen its ties with the Gulf countries in general and with Saudi Arabi in particular. Elaph.com, January 17, 2023.
 Shafaq.com, January 8, 2023.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 12, 2023.
 The reference is to the October 2019 protests in Iraq over the economic, political and social situation in the country, in which there were also calls condemning Iran's involvement in Iraq.
 Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 17, 2023.
 Sotaliraq.com, January 14, 2023.
 Sotaliraq.com, January 12, 2023.
 Al-Khalil Bin Ahmad Al-Farahidi (718 – 786) was a grammarian and writer from the Basra area.
 Yaqut Al-Hamawi (1178-1229) was a writer and encyclopedist who also dealt with history and geography.
 Khalifa Bin Khayat (160-240) was a historian and writer from Basra.
 Shams Al-Din Al-Dhahabi (1254-1348) was an Arab reformer and imam.
 'Imad Muhammad Dhiab Al-Hafiz is an Iraqi member of the Arab Historians Union.
 The islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Moussa that were occupied by Iran in 1971 and are claimed by the UAE.
 Al-Zaman (Iraq), January 10, 2023.
 The reference is to the fatwa issued in 2014 by Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, the supreme Shi'ite religious authority in Iraq, directing to establish the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi militias to fight ISIS.
 Burathanews.com, January 14, 2023.
 'Takfiri' means Muslims who accuse fellow Muslims of heresy.
 This refers to the fact that the Shi'ites rejected the rule of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and supported 'Ali Ibn Abu Talib.
 This claim is not accurate. The founders of the Hanbali and Hanafi schools were indeed of Persian origin, but the founders of the Maliki and Shafi'i schools were not.
 Burathanews.com, January 14, 2023.