Culture, a Trump Card to Boost Islamic Republic’s Soft Power

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh

As history goes on, humans pay more attention to different and, sometimes, ignored aspects of politics and methods of implementing it. If military equipment, economic sanctions and force were major means to advance a country’s policies, now, making other countries interested in one’s policies and viewpoints constitutes a more sustainable way to influence them.

Due to its longstanding civilizational background which is also rooted in Islam, Iran has come into possession of such a collection of soft power components that using even a fraction of them will change its diplomatic stamina. This paper will introduce the potential and active capacities of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s soft power just in cultural fields. Certainly in a progressively globalizing world when international public opinion respects cultural values of countries and mass communication media have greatly developed, this will be very attractive and will highlight Iran’s role in view of its rich civilizational background.

Here, general outlines of the subject will be laid out first before introducing components of Iran’s soft power in cultural areas.

Definition of soft power

Soft power is used when we can convince others without using brute force, offering them rewards, or deceiving them.

This definition contains several points which are useful to remove ambiguities surrounding the nature of soft power:

Firstly, soft power has nothing to do with force or coercion or persuasion. In fact, soft power has nothing to do with carrot or stick.

Secondly, soft power is based on convincement, not enticement. That is, if we could attract people’s attention to something by misleading them, this has nothing to do with soft power. Joseph Nye maintains that soft power is based on trust, which is absent in propaganda.  Therefore, anything involving enticement, deceit or psychological operations will lie outside the realm of soft power. Although measures like velvet revolutions or cultural invasion are secondary effects of soft power influence of a country in another country, they are not inherent components of soft power.

On the other hand, hard power is manifested as military equipment, brute force, deterrence, threat, war, and forceful politics. Other forms of hard power include economic sanctions as well as economic incentives or threats. However, soft power is different in nature and advances through its attractions, cultural programs, and promotion of a certain set of values via different media, civil institutions, as well as bilateral or multilateral diplomacy.

In this way, it becomes clear that soft power includes richer and more sustainable components than mere psychological or propaganda operations. Soft power includes deeply rooted elements which are real and are not affected by lapse of time and are embedded in culture, society, politics and economy of a certain country.  Some of those elements include arts, customs and rituals, folklore, national characteristics, sports, economic power, internal coherence, state efficiency, national self-confidence, national solidarity, ideological attractions, natural and tourism attractions as well as presentation of an attractive model for foreign policy.

Other items can be added to the above list. In fact, the expanse of soft power is much wider and some of the above elements, like arts, also include a huge array of tools which can be used to implement soft power.

Soft power components of Islamic Republic of Iran

During the past 30 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has determined, defined (and sometimes redefined) and exploited a large number of soft power tools which are embedded in the great Iranian and Islamic civilization. However, focusing on culture alone can demonstrate soft power potentials of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In fact, culture includes very important tools and components of soft power. Joseph Nye has pointed to three factors in his definition of soft power one of which is cultural and ideological values. Culture of every society can be recognized in various layers such as arts, civilization, religion, scientific position, entertainment, literature, folklore, national behavior, and even foods that cater to international taste. Strength of these themes and their connection to old models hidden in civilization and ideology of a society indicates power of the said components.

Iranian culture

Iran is the name of a land which has been the cradle of civilization since 7,000 years ago and its nation has gone through many ups and downs. It has been invaded many times by bloodthirsty conquerors, but none of them could undermine the Iranian identity and civilization. Invasions by people of Turan, Alexander, Romans, Genghis, Tamerlane, Ottoman Turks, Saddam Hussein and dozens of other instances are part of sufferings of the Iranian nation, but none of them have led to collapse of the Iranian culture and civilization. On the other side, a country like Egypt with thousands of years of civilizational background turned into a totally Arab country. It is for this reason that Iranians insist that the modern world has no choice but to recognize their country as a superpower in the Middle East. Some factors which support this claim and indicate the power and civilizational stability of Iran will be discussed below.

1)    Iran cradle of human rights and respect for other nations’ beliefs: Cyrus the Great was the first formulator of human rights charter in the world. Also, few countries can be found to enjoy such a position as to be a habitat for Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians, as well as Shiite and Sunni Muslims who have coexisted for hundreds of years. This is a sign of Iranian tolerance for other nations.

2)    Iran, cradle of literature, culture and arts: Iran stands on top of the world in terms of literature and powerful poets it has had. Odes of Omar Khayyam, Ferdowsi’s Shah Nameh which is 1,500 years old, mystic poems of Mowlana, as well as poems written by Hafez, Sa'di, Roudaki, and Nezami are among the most prominent literary works of the world.

On the other hand, Iranian architecture dates back to more than 5,000 years ago and has inspired architecture in many other parts of the world. From 3,500-year-old ziggurat in Khuzestan to Persepolis, which is 2,500 years old and an exhibition of Asian arts; from Azargoshasb temple of Azarbaijan which dates back to 3,000 years ago to Anahita temple of Kermanshah which is 2,100 years old; as well as from bas-relief in Bistoon, which is 2,500 years old and Citadel of Bam, which is 2,000 years old, to Palace of Tisfun, in Iraq, all attest to prosperity of the Iranian civilization.

3)    Iran, land of outstanding and valuable handicrafts: Numerous handicrafts of Iran are signs of thriving Iranian arts and their ability to inspire arts in the world. All art lovers of the world are familiar with the Iranian carpets or other Iranian handicrafts and keep them at their homes.

4)    Iran, land of knowledge, wisdom, and science: Many modern advances are owed to studies, researchers, inventions and discoveries by Iranians. Perhaps major scientific revolutions in such fields as astronomy, medicine, agriculture and handicrafts have been initiated by Iranians. At present, serial achievements of Iranian youth at international exhibitions of inventions attest to this fact.

5)    Iran, land of a patriotic and valiant nation: Iranian civilization has always been intermingled with tales of patriotism and valor of Iranian heroes. Iran has given birth to youth who fought Saddam’s army for eight years to defend their country and religion and offered more than one million martyrs in order to prevent foreigners from encroaching upon their homeland.

Count de Gobineau, who has carried out studies in Iran for many years and has written famous books about history and civilization of Iran, has reflected on patriotism of Iranians by noting that most Iranians have an eternal sense of patriotism. He says that Iranians love each other and greatly revere kindness. They consider their country as part of their being and destruction of their country is tantamount to destruction of their own bodies. They have experienced every form of government, but have not changed their cultural and civilizational course. Iranians have witnessed the greatest invasions in history, but have maintained their national identity.

6)    Iran, land of monotheism in the world: Iranian culture has been based on religion since its early days and has given rise to the most important and influential religions in the world. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunnis and Shiites have coexisted in Iranian cities hundreds of years before human rights organizations came into being. Iranian people have never fought each other due to religious differences and no religious war has ever occurred in Iran. For thousands of years, dozens of religious rituals and beliefs have lived along each other.

7)    Iran, land of coexistence of different peoples: Iran is a land of different peoples who despite being of Aryan stock, enjoy their own ethnic characteristics and have their own musical styles, handicrafts, and local languages. However, the common denominator among all of them is Iranian culture and civilization and despite maintaining their local languages, they respect Persian as their common language. An interesting point about bas-reliefs in Persepolis is that they show Persian and Median soldiers standing side by side and none of them have been depicted as superior to the other. This is a proof to respect for different ethnicities in the history of Iran.

8)    Iran, the land that revived Islam: Iran has demonstrated the lofty spirit of Islam and has promoted it. Choosing Isfahan as the capital of arts and culture of the Islamic world in 2006 shows how Islam and Iran are intertwined and inseparable. Iran was the sole country that maintained its civilizational symbols while understanding Islam and mixing this divine religion with thousands of years of its arts, culture, and civilization.

The above octagonal aspects of Iranian civilization are proof to the role of Iran in shaping human civilization from the beginning up to the present time.

On the whole, the ancient civilization of Iran has had great impact on soft power of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although due to rapid growth of communication means in the modern world, some people have claimed that cultures are undergoing globalization and, at last, one superior culture will prevail over others, it seems that a parallel development is going on which will lead to better understanding of different cultures and civilizations, identifying their attractive points and presenting those attractions to the rest of the world. At present, the way has been paved for recognition of ancient civilizations and comparing their lofty philosophies with the current philosophy and civilization of the West. Spiritual cultures of the East have even influenced Western societies. Under these circumstances, the glorious, powerful, spiritual, and monotheistic civilization of Iran has many things to say. There is no doubt that knowledgeable and courageous management of this issue will finally provide the Islamic Iran with a unique and unending source of soft power.


i   Taken from personal correspondence between writer and Professor Joseph Nye
ii  Although some analysts maintain that soft power is more of a cultural nature, economic strengths as well as domestic and foreign policy abilities of a country are also important and soft power cannot be limited to cultural components.

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