Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, shown in a file photo, says Google has been "treated as a plaything."

Story highlights

Google tells CNN this body of water was never labeled

Spats over naming have cropped up from "Malvinas" to "Derry" to "Kampuchea"

Iran's Foreign Ministry says Google is being used by the nation's enemies

CNN  — 

Iran is taking on one of the world’s biggest Internet giants, threatening to sue over something that is not on its maps.

On state-run Press TV, the Iranian regime warns it may take legal action against Google for not labeling the Persian Gulf.

It’s the latest volley in what one expert calls a “war of words” that has raged for decades over the waterway that borders Iran and several Arab countries.

Iran previously lashed out against the U.S. military for calling the waterway the Arabian Gulf.

In a statement Thursday, the Iranian regime accused Google of carrying out efforts of Iran’s enemies.

“Toying with modern technologies in political issues is among the new measures by the enemies against Iran, (and) in this regard, Google has been treated as a plaything,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Thursday, according to state-run Press TV.

He added that “omitting the name Persian Gulf is (like) playing with the feelings and realities of the Iranian nation.”

On state-run news agency IRNA, Iranian officials accused Google of having removed the words “Persian Gulf.”

But a Google spokesperson told CNN the body of water was never labeled.

“It’s just simply the case that we don’t have a label for every body of water,” the spokesperson said, speaking anonymously on the issue in keeping with company policy.

The spokesperson would not name any other specific areas that are not labeled.

If you type “Persian Gulf” into Google Maps, the resulting map shows you the Persian Gulf but does not label it. Nearby bodies of water – including the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea – are labeled.

Google uses the marker “A” to show you whichever location you requested. The column to the left of the map does say that the A is in the “Persian Gulf.”

Anger over the lack of a label on the map has spread not just within Iran’s government, but among the population and Iranians living around the world. At least nine pages on Facebook are dedicated to the issue, including “Hey Google, put Persian Gulf back on the map” and “Boycott Google for removing Persian Gulf from the maps.”

There have also been times that Arabs complained the waterway should be called the Arabian Gulf, says Clive Holes, a professor at the University of Oxford who specializes in language and the contemporary Arab world.

“It’s a war of words,” he says.

“These are symbolic things” and involve “a lot of emotion,” Holes said.

The National Iranian American Council has complained that the term “Arabian Gulf” began “as Pan-Arabism propaganda and was later used by Saddam Hussein to exploit ethnic rivalries in support of his regional ambitions.”

In 2010, the U.S. Navy was bombarded with thousands of angry, pro-Iranian messages on its Facebook page.

The Navy responded with its own extensive statement on Facebook.

“We are aware of the long and proud history of the Persian people,” the Navy said at the time. It added that “Arabian Gulf” is used for its forces, but that in other respects, including nautical charts and publications, “the historic name of Persian Gulf is used.”

Iran has gone after other groups before for either using the term “Arabian Gulf’ or simply calling it “the gulf.”

The country banned the British publication The Economist once in 2006 for calling the waterway “the Gulf,” and it launched protests against the Louvre museum in Paris when its guides did the same, the British newspaper The Guardian reported.

Google would not say whether it has had direct contact with Iranian authorities on the issue, nor whether it has received many complaints.

Holes says Google is “boxing clever” – making a smart move – by not labeling something controversial. “They don’t want to annoy anybody.”

Google Maps has found itself in controversial terrain before.

In November 2010, a Nicaraguan general cited Google’s map of the border with Costa Rica to justify a reported raid in a disputed area.

The dispute over the term “Persian Gulf” is a reminder that what a place is called can have powerful political repercussions.

While much of the world refers to the Asian nation west of Thailand as Myanmar, the U.S. government still calls it Burma.

The State Department explains that the ruling junta changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, but some in the democratic opposition don’t recognize the change. “Out of support for the democratic opposition, and its victory in the 1990 election, the U.S. government likewise uses ‘Burma,’” the State Department website says.

The United States also does not use the name Kampuchea, instead calling that country Cambodia. The State Department says the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia, “which it called Democratic Kampuchea (DK),” into “a land of horror.”

In Israel, some officials refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria – biblical references used to highlight Jewish history on the land and bolster a view that it should be part of modern Israel.

In Northern Ireland, nationalists and unionists have battled for years over whether to call an area Derry or Londonderry.

Argentina and much of Latin America call the Falklands the Malvinas. Argentina presses claims to the islands 30 years after losing a war with Britain over them.

“You kind of own something if it’s called the way you want it called,” Holes, the Oxford professor said, adding that there is a “kind of a feeling that who you are is tied into issues of how you name things.”