If things weren't murky enough over there, what with reflagged Kuwaiti tankers being escorted by American warships through a sea of Iraqi air strikes and Iranian mines, now confusion has erupted over the proper name of the spot where it's all happening.

Historically, the place is the "Persian Gulf." But lately some people in the Pentagon -- "out of sensitivity to a number of countries in the region," according to a Defense Department spokesman -- have been calling it the "Arabian Gulf."

The switch in nomenclature, something like reflagging the gulf, was hailed yesterday as "a positive development" by such as Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon. But other interested parties were less enthusiastic.

"It's like a little child being unhappy about not getting his way and calling names," said Iranian-born Shireen Hunter, deputy director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The 'Persian Gulf' is not the name that the Iranians gave to it. It's the name that the Greeks and Romans gave to it. We're talking 2,500 years ago. It's the historical name, something that's fairly well established. You can't just change it. Frankly, for a superpower to do something like this -- it's just not becoming."

Iranians, often called Persians, are racially distinct from Arabs.

"What do they mean by 'Arabian Gulf'?" Hunter scoffed. "Does it mean that the Arabs own it? Then why didn't they call it the 'British Gulf' when the British controlled it? And why, after the Americans invaded Mexico, didn't they just call the 'Gulf of Mexico' the 'Gulf of Texas'? Maybe they should just call the Persian Gulf the 'Arabian Lake'?"

The issue arose last week when Marine Gen. George Crist, chief of the Pentagon's Central Command that oversees the region, used the phrase "Arabian Gulf" in designating the spot an "imminent danger area" where 10,000 servicemen are eligible for combat pay. Assistant secretary for manpower David Armor followed up with a lengthy memo that employed the new term liberally.

Still, it's doubtful that it will stick. The State Department, at odds with the Pentagon once again, is unwavering in its insistence on 'Persian Gulf.' And yesterday, the Pentagon seemed to be of at least two minds on the subject.

"Geographically, the terms 'Arabian Gulf' and 'Persian Gulf' are synonymous," explained Army Maj. David Super, the Pentagon spokesman. But when asked what term he was currently authorized to use, Super replied, "I'll have to get back to you on that."