Iranian Soft Power? A Post-Sanctions Cultural Strategy

The Iranian pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015
The Iranian pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015

During its years of international isolation, Iran saw "culture" solely as a way to promote its Shia Islamic heritage. Yet Iranian officials recently have begun to take an interest in questions of national identity, heritage and Iranian civilization that are unrelated to the Islamic clerical regime and its values.

As the country prepares to move back into the international fold following the accord on its nuclear program and an end to sanctions, the question of national identity â€" or, public image? â€" may now be seen as a crucial component of Iran"s international standing and exercising of soft power. The potential of both trade, and particularly expected new flocks of tourists, means fighting for culture can become a priority.

Earlier this month, Iran announced that the United States would be returning a collection of disputed prehistoric fossils to Tehran.

That was followed by the declaration of Farhad Nazari, an official of the state Cultural Heritage Organization, condemning Azerbaijan's move to display an "Azerbaijani miniature" â€" possibly a copy of the Book of Kings, a 10th century Persian epic â€" at the Milan 2015 Expo. Nazari told the semi-official ISNA agency that Iran must respond, even with legal action, to the Republic of Azerbaijan's bid to "appropriate" parts of Iran's cultural heritage.

The issue, like so many cultural or ethnological questions, is complex and divisive. Nazari said officials must forge an official posture and response to such situations. "This incident must not be overlooked," he said, and Azerbaijan's conduct was "not correct." Its culture, he recalled, "was once part of Iran's culture, and now they want to get their hands on" Iran's heritage. He said Azerbaijan could "register" the fact that it had a copy of the Book of Kings on its territory, but merely for the record â€" not as a part of its own heritage.

Iran, a multicultural state bordering a region in chaos, has undergone decades of relative political and economic weakness following the 1979 revolution. While Azerbaijan may not wish to provoke its neighbor with crass nationalism, playing with culture may be a quieter way of chipping away at Iran's standing.

The Tehran newspaper E'temad separately cited a deputy-head of the Heritage Organization as saying that officials would soon go to Chicago to discuss the return of tablets from the ancient Achaemenid dynasty. Mohammad Hasan Talebian, deputy head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), did not give details of the tablets, or state if they were being kept at the well-known Oriental Institute. But Talebian said the "Achaemenid consignment is extremely important to us."

Such concern is a distant cry from the early days after the revolution, when radical Shia Islam was all that mattered. Indeed, Iranians remember when the notorious Revolutionary Courts prosecutor Sadeq Khalkhali threatened to send a mob to southern Iran to destroy the precious remains of the Achaemenid capital, Persepolis.

Now, for Tehran, any such treasures must be preserved, promoted and returned when required. Both for Iranian pride, and the coming wave of tourists.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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