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Public Diplomacy

Iran

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Vital InformationEdit

Iran image IranDaily 07162008
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
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  • Capital - Tehran
  • Population - 68,688,433 (July 2006 est.)
  • Government – Theocratic Republic
  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei
  • President Mahmud Ahmadinejad

OverviewEdit

Iran is today a rising power in the Middle East and an increasingly prominent player in world affairs. Despite the lack of an overarching public diplomacy structure, various elements of the Iranian government have been engaged in public diplomacy initiatives throughout the world in an effort to explain the policies and raise the standing of the Islamic Republic that emerged since the Iranian Revolution of 1978 - 1979.

Iran’s public diplomacy credentials are derived from the fact that it is widely perceived to be one of the few governments to voice the opinions of the regional "street" vis-á-vis the U.S. and Israel as well as some of the entrenched regimes in the Middle East. Indeed, Iran’s defiant attitude, particularly in its relationships with the West, has become its trademark, exemplified in late leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s fiery rhetoric, as well as current President Ahmadinejad’s conduct on the international stage [1]. Thus, while running on a collision course with other regional governments and the West, the Islamic Republic is earning popular respect in the Middle East as well as in many parts of the Third World [2]. At the same time, Iran’s pronounced pro-Shia affinities and policies have engendered a backlash against the Islamic Republic in the Sunni Middle-East, complicating its public diplomacy mission there. In recent years, Iran has made a substantial effort to extend its public diplomacy reach, particularly with the launching of the 24-hour English-language satellite channel Press TV and the Arabic-language satellite channel Al Alam.

Iran & the Middle EastEdit

Iran has traditionally found itself at odds with many of the dominant powers in the Middle East, especially U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iraq, as well as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan [3]. However, since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has typically been held in high esteem by the "Arab street", as it has become one of the few countries willing to stand up to the highly unpopular Israeli and U.S. policies in the region [4]. Iran’s vocal support for Palestine has been one of its most successful public diplomacy tools so far, generating widespread public support in the Arab world even among those who historically might find themselves at odds with Iran’s goals of greater influence in the region. This enthusiasm for Iran’s support of popular Arab causes has not, however, translated into general enthusiasm towards contemporary Iran and its policies, as historical anti-Persian and anti-Shia prejudices continue to create suspicion in the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Middle East. At the same time, since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the ascendance of the Party of God (“Hezbollah”) in Lebanon, Iran, boosted by a regional Shia revival, has become a major player [5] - a fact that has led many in the region to seek dialogue with this increasingly powerful but traditionally maligned state [6].

Iran has established radio services and satellite channels targeting various audiences in the Middle East, from the high-tech Arabic Al Alam to a number of radio stations in Hebrew, Dari, Pashto, Kurdish, Uzbek, Turkish, English, Turkmen, and Azeri. Al Alam, which originally targeted Iraq but has now expanded to other Arabic countries, attempts to promote pan-Islamism and to acquaint Arabs with Iran & Iranian culture.

Iran also transmits Al Kawthar TV in Arabic to the Arab World, a station that emphasizes Iranian culture in its broadcasts. It shows regularly Iranian soap operas and other cultural programming [7]. Its website receives few hits, and of these about 40% come from within Iran, though the rest do emanate mostly from Arab countries [8].

Public diplomacy vis-á-vis the Arabian PeninsulaEdit

Iran’s relationship with the Persian Gulf states has historically been rather strained as a result of territorial disputes, Persian Gulf discrimination against indigenous Shia populations, as well as the Persian Gulf states’ support of Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war [9]. However, in recent years, Iran’s President Ahmedinejad has launched a “charm offensive” of sorts aimed at improving relations with the Persian Gulf, and specifically with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This public diplomacy effort seeks to build up on the economic ties already in place between Iran and the Persian Gulf states.

In Dubai alone, for example, Iranian investment amounts to around $300 billion, and real estate ownership is estimated between 10% and 30% of all real estate [10]. Although the Persian Gulf states have traditionally aligned themselves with the U.S. & Saudi Arabia against Iran, they have reacted relatively warmly to Ahmedinejad’s overtures, inviting him to speak in Bahrain, at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Qatar, and even at the 2007 OPEC conference, followed by an invitation to Hajj in Saudi Arabia in the autumn and winter of 2007 [11].

Ahmadinejad’s offensive has brought some returns for the Islamic Republic. After a U.S.-Iranian naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf in January 2008 [12], Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to use restraint, an unexpected move for a state dependent on the U.S. for military aid [13]. In addition, the King of Bahrain in January 2008 called for better relations between the Arab states and Iran, despite U.S. protest [14]. At the same time, mistrust of Iran still persists, as seen by some in UAE’s recent purchase of a large arms package from the U.S., widely thought to serve as a safeguard against Iran [15].

Public diplomacy vis-á-vis the LevantEdit

The Islamic Republic’s relationship with the Levant has been defined by its strong ideological, verbal, and financial support for the Palestinian liberation movement as well as the active role it has played in supporting "Hezbollah" in Lebanon, along with the ambivalence these two efforts have created among many of the region’s leaders [16] [17].

Iran has traditionally been one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian independence movement, a fact that has cultivated substantial goodwill towards Iran both within Palestine and abroad [18]. In addition, the Islamic Republic’s frequent and scathing condemnations of Israeli policy have garnered respect for Iran in the eyes of Arab publics, especially in light of the reluctance of most Arab governments to take a stand [19] [20] [21]. Within Palestine, Iran’s humanitarian relief efforts during Israel’s economic blockades have cultivated a favorable image, showcasing Iran as one of few states to consistently support the Palestinian people in times of crisis.

Iran’s role in Lebanon, ongoing since 1982 but particularly salient since the 2006 July War between Israel and Hezbollah, has had a strong effect on its image both in Lebanon and abroad. In Lebanon, Iran is widely credited as the major backer behind the Party of God’s widespread humanitarian infrastructure, and billboards in Shia-majority areas are decorated with portraits of Iranian leaders. After the July War in particular, Iran sent hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Lebanon (through Hezbollah) as well as ambulances and other forms of assistance, making donations from the Arab World pale in comparison [22] [23]. As a result, Lebanese Shia (currently the largest and most powerful group in Lebanon) tend to look favorably upon the Islamic Regime. One slogan in particular captures prevalent attitudes towards Iran’s support of reconstruction efforts in Lebanon: "The Zionist enemy destroys, the Islamic Republic of Iran builds." [24] [25] [26]. However, among the rest of Lebanese society, there is a mixture of admiration and suspicion towards Iran, reflecting ambivalence towards Hezbollah as both the guarantor of Lebanese independence and also a sectarian political party. Indeed, while Iran’s strong role in the July War garnered intense and lasting admiration among Arabs worldwide, it has created a sectarian backlash in some quarters [27]. Furthermore, Iran’s role in Lebanon (as well as opposition to Israeli & U.S. policies there) has nurtured its growing friendship with the Ba’athist regime in Syria [28] [29], which has in turn angered the anti-Syrian majority of Lebanese society [30].

Public diplomacy vis-á-vis IraqEdit

Historical enemies, Iran and Iraq have developed substantially friendlier relations since the fall of Saddam Hussein, albeit only with the Shia segments of society and government. Perceptions among Iraq’s minority Sunni population of Iran’s pro-Shia role in Iraq’s current civil war persist as a significant source of tension [31]. Nonetheless, among Iraq’s majority Shia population a significant degree of goodwill towards Iran has built up, despite historical anti-Persian prejudices. Ayatollah Sistani, for example, [32] [33], the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia population, is originally from Iran [34].

Al AlamEdit

Iran logo AlalamSite 07162008

In 2003, amid the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran launched an Arabic satellite channel specifically targeting Iraqi viewers, called Al Alam [35]. This channel has downplayed the sectarian killings in Iraq and has instead tried to promote a pan-Muslim solution to the conflict [36]. It focuses on news, but also has segments on business, sports, and culture, among other things. Al Alam gained fame in 2007 after Iran seized British sailors that had wandered into Iranian waters. It was the first to show the images of the sailors in captivity in Iran, and indicated a desire by the Iranian government to speak directly to Arabs (and not to the West or to Iran’s people). Al Alam can be viewed without a satellite in Iraq, and some reports suggest increasing viewership there [37] [38]. However, a poll conducted in Iraq by CNN and Gallup revealed that about 11 % of Iraqis tune into Al Alam, which was outflanked by other news networks such as Iraqiya, Arabiya, and Al Jazeera [39].

Relations with IsraelEdit

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic has professed an actively hostile stance against the existence of an exclusively Jewish Israeli state in Palestine [40]. Instead, Iran has taken the position that the territory’s status should be decided by a popular referendum of all inhabitants, both Israeli & Palestinian. Iran’s views on the future of Israel and the Palestinian territories have been the subject of intense controversy, particularly because of President Ahmadinejad’s confrontational style and the role the media has played in framing and interpreting his statements. While Iran claims to support a jointly governed Israeli-Arab state -- "The best solution to the Palestinian problem is holding a referendum to decide the type of the Palestinian government and fate of the Palestinian nation" -- a position reiterated multiple times [41] [42] in speeches in Tehran and Kuala Lumpur, among other places, and also, famously, at Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University in September 2007 -- "We must allow Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians to determine their own fate themselves through a free referendum. Whatever they choose as a nation everybody should accept and respect" [43][44] -- ambiguous rhetoric on the part of the President has flared up suspicion and tarnished Iran’s international reputation. The epicenter of controversy was Ahmadinejad’s October 2005 call for regime change in Israel when his use of the Persian expression "vanish from the pages of time" was translated by the New York Times as a call for Israel "to be wiped off the map." Ahmadinejad’s failure to coherently and clearly express his stance and the ensuing interpretation of his intentions, rapidly picked up by media worldwide, [45] represents one of Iran’s major public diplomacy failures of the last 30 years.

The Iranian government has done little to address the controversies. The government’s decision to hold a conference discussing the Holocaust, presenting the views of those who believed in it as well as those who did not, created scorn both domestically and internationally, and was widely perceived as a denier’s conference. [46]. Thus, the current political leadership’s behavior has sharply aggravated relations with both Israel and Jews abroad, despite the support Jews within Iran tend to have for the Islamic Republic’s government [47].

Iran & the Third WorldEdit

In addition to being regarded favorably by populations in the Islamic World as a stalwart of Islamic resistance to the West, Iran’s influence also extends to many non-Muslim, formerly non-aligned states [48].

Iran has in the last few years launched a public diplomacy campaign towards East Asia, strengthening ties with China and various countries in the South-East, especially Malaysia & Indonesia. Although Iran has traditionally preserved a strong relationship with China, recent economic developments have reached unprecedented levels [49] [50] [51]. However, while its diplomacy towards the Orient is accelerating, Iran’s public diplomacy in the region is still in its infancy.

Relations with Tajikistan offer an example of the extent and focus of Iran’s public diplomacy in Central Asia. During Tajikistan’s civil war in the early 1990’s, Iran supplied humanitarian aid under the auspices of the Imam Khomeini Relief Organization [52]. Today, Iran maintains enhanced relations with Tajikistan, and invests heavily in infrastructure [53]. Tehran hosts cultural conferences with Tajikstan and hosts Tajik academics for cultural fairs and celebrations, drawing upon the two countries’ shared cultural heritage [54] [55] [56][57]

In recent years, Iran has stepped up outreach to Africa, recently offering to host an Iran-Africa summit [58] [59]. Iran has stated as a main goal of its foreign policy the support of “oppressed and deprived nations” and its economic & technological support to Africa keeps in line with this mission [60]. Similar to its relations with Asia, there has been little in the way of non-traditional diplomacy with regards to Africa.

Iran is a member of the Developing 8 Countries, a group which seeks to boost cooperation between 8 major (mostly Muslim) developing countries, including Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan, among others [61].

Iran & the WestEdit

Iran’s relationship with the West has been strained ever since the 1979 Revolution, when images of American diplomats being taken hostage in Tehran came to define the country in the minds of an entire generation. In Iran, hostility towards the West in the 1980’s, a result of decades of U.S. interference in the country’s internal affairs as well as Western support for Saddam Hussein, has fueled a perception that Iran is one of the U.S.’s greatest enemies in the world [62]. The 1997 election of the pro-Western President Khatami helped Iran’s image somewhat, though the 2005 election of anti-Western President Ahmedinejad has reversed this goodwill. Iran’s nuclear program, a major point of suspicion in the West, has also colored Western perceptions of the Islamic Republic.

Iran has attempted various approaches to explain its nuclear program as an honest quest for civilian nuclear energy. The government has called for a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East, a move welcomed by the Arab League [63], and held a conference with international nuclear security experts to reassure the world of its nuclear program’s emphasis on sustainable development (and not, as had been feared in the West, nuclear weapons development) [64]. However, suspicion and disbelief still persist among Western publics and governments alike [65][66].

President Ahmadinejad’s 2008 visit to the U.S. for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, followed by an invitation to speak at world-renown Columbia University, demonstrated the extent of animosity between Iran and the U.S. The visit drew the spotlight of media and public attention, only to generate immense controversy when Columbia University President Bollinger called the Iranian leader a "petty and cruel dictator." The unfriendly welcoming alienated Iranians, shocked many the world over and served to further propel the two countries down a collision course. [67]

Tourism Edit

Iran logo PressTV 07162008

Despite persisting antagonisms, Iran has been successful in its efforts to attract Western tourists to the country, and this, coupled with the launching of the 24-hour English-language Iranian news channel Press TV in July 2007, offers some prospects for rapprochement over the coming years. [68].

The Islamic Republic has made efforts to capitalize on Iran’s tremendous tourism potential, including the establishment of Irpedia.com, an English language website aimed at foreigners, that touts Iran as a tourist destination with the slogan “Iran, Land of Civilization and Friendship” [69]. Similar efforts have been undertaken by Iranian embassies around the world, such as the Iranian embassy in Ottawa which has established a website providing English-language information about Iran, and specifically about tourism opportunities and regulations [70]. Currently, about 500,000 foreign nationals (and some 800,000 expatriate Iranians) visit Iran annually, providing employment for nearly 2% of Iran’s population [71]. In the past year, amid increasing tourist numbers, Iran has stepped up its self-promotion efforts abroad by sending fairs to promote tourism to Iran, most recently to Spain and India [72] [73] [74].

Sports DiplomacyEdit

Iran image IranSportsPress 07162008

One of the arenas in which Iran has had particular success have been the cooperative matches held between Iran and American athletes, specifically in wrestling (the Iranian national sport). The program of exchanges was started under President Clinton and President Khatami and has continued under the current regime. Iran has hosted a number of teams for large tournaments, including the prestigious Takhti Cup, and has used these opportunities to introduce the visiting athletes to Iranian society and culture [75] [76]. Conversely, the Iranian soccer team was invited to California for friendly matches on several occasions after the 1998 World Cup, where the Iranian team handed roses to their U.S. counterparts before the match [77].

Iran Basketball AFP
In July of 2008, the Iranian Olympic Basketball team traveled to Utah to participate in the National Basketball Association's Summer League. Speaking about this visit William J. Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, said,

"We also hope to bring the Iranian soccer team to the U.S. later this year. Over the long-term, we hope to build connections among our people through educational, cultural, and other exchanges which can overcome 30 years of estrangement that has severed links between our societies."

Government AgenciesEdit

Ministry of Information and Communication Technology

International BroadcastingEdit

Iranian BroadcastingEdit

Islamic Republic News Agency/ Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting IRNA is the official mouthpiece of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Al Alam Iran's Arabic satellite channel aimed at promoting pan-Islamism.

Press TV Iran's 24-hour English-language satellite channel which has a stated aim of breaking the "Western stranglehold" over international media as well as offering a "different" view of politics than those currently available. It offers a wide variety of programs, from news to religion to culture that aim to further dialogue between Iran and the world, as well as between the Muslim World and the West.

Sahar TV An English-language TV channel targeted at Europe and offering religious & political programing.

Al Kawthar TV

Voice of the Islamic Republic A radio service in 27 languages focusing on news.

Broadcasting to IranEdit

Voice of America’s Radio Farda

Andisheh TV A satellite television station by expatriate U.S. Iranians offering news and entertainment.

Jaam-e Jam TV A television station by expatriate U.S. Iranians offering news and entertainment.

PBC Tapesh A television station by expatriate U.S. Iranians offering news and entertainment.

Salaam TV A television station focusing on religious programming.

BlogsEdit

There are roughly 11 million regular internet users in Iran, and as a result there is a very extensive and influential blogging culture. Blogging has emerged in recent years as one of the most reliable ways for people in Iran to express their views freely and to reach a wider audience. Today there are over 700,000 blogs in Farsi around the world, and Farsi is among the top 10 languages used in blogging [78].

Blogs in EnglishEdit

Inside IranEdit

http://www.ahmadinejad.ir/ - President Ahmedinejad’s personal blog

http://behnoud.com – pro-Western journalist resident in Iran writing about current international affairs

http://ebtekarm.blogspot.com/ - Vice President Massoumed Ebtekar’s blog

http://www.leader.ir/langs/EN/index.php - Supreme Leader Khamenei’s personal website, including his opinions under “Leader’s Word”

http://www.hoder.com/weblog/ - prominent Iranian journalist writing on current international affairs, Iranian culture, and world affairs

Outside IranEdit

http://hoder.com/weblog/ - an Iranian freelance journalist and one of the pioneers of Persian blogging writing about media coverage of Iran in the English-language media

http://omidmemarian.blogspot.com/ - an American-Iranian journalist writing about U.S. and Iranian politics

http://www.parsarts.com/ - Global Iranian youth culture and identity roundup

http://iranicanlive.com/blog/ - Iranian-American culture and news roundup

http://www.iranaffairs.com/ - an American-Iranian providing critical analysis of Iran and world affairs

http://thespiritofman.blogspot.com/ - a Neoconservative Canadian-Iranian writing about Iran and World Affairs

Index of Iranian Bloggers in English Worldwide

Blogs in FarsiEdit

Inside IranEdit

http://www.ahmadinejad.ir/ - President Ahmedinejad’s personal blog

http://masoudbehnoud.com/ -pro-Western journalist resident in Iran writing about current international affairs

http://greenebtekar.persianblog.ir/ - Vice President Massoumed Ebtekar’s blog

http://i.hoder.com/ - prominent Iranian journalist writing on current international affairs, Iranian culture, & critical world news analysis

http://www.webneveshteha.com/ - First Blog by Iranian cabinet member (Mohammad Ali Abtahi) focuses on Iranian society & politics

http://ghomaaar.blogspot.com/ - Blog by Mojtaba Saminejad, famous blogger arrested for outspoken writings against human rights abuses in IRI

http://aakharazi.blogfa.com – blog on Iranian society

http://www.globalpersian.com/salman/weblog.html - First Iranian blog; reports on Iranian economics & politics

http://www.cappuccinomag.com/ - Iranian zine focusing on Iranian society & international politics

Outside IranEdit

http://www.memarian.info/ - US Iranian journalist writing about Iranian politics

http://www.goftaniha.org/ - blog by famous former Basij member & current human rights campaigner

http://sibestaan.malakut.org/ - Iranian journalist & artist Mehdi Jami living in Amsterdam

http://nikahang.blogspot.com/ - Blog by Iranian cartoonist & former politician now living in Canada

http://www.kaariz.com/ - Iranian living in Lebanon writing about Iran & Middle East

Index of Farsi Bloggers Worldwide

Further ReadingEdit

Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere, John Kelly and Bruce Etling, The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Research Publication No. 2008-01, April 6, 2008.

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