Announcing a massive $60 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro called the body of water separating Iran and the Arab states to its southwest the “Arabian Gulf.”

At the press conference, the Persian Gulf, the widely accepted name for the body of water, was not mentioned at all. Iran itself was only mentioned once (the arms sale “is not solely about Iran,” Shapiro said).

I suspect that this was not simply a slip, as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell used the phrase “Arabian Gulf” again today in his briefing to raise the curtains on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s upcoming trip to Asia.

The National Iranian American Council, writing before today’s briefing, said that Shapiro’s use of the term “Arabian Gulf” contradicts State Department policy and also could “fuel ethnic tensions.”

Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s policy director, wrote a blog post on the subject, and NIAC created a webpage with a form to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an e-mail demanding that State go back to using the term “Persian Gulf.”

“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,” wrote Abdi at the Huffington Post, adding that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden had both used the term to win over Arab populations by appealing to ethnic chauvinism.

The NIAC letter campaign page says that the name “Persian Gulf” has been widely accepted for more than two millennia.

Abdi wrote:

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 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.