Even before soft power was officially introduced into the vocabulary of international relations, its core principles were nevertheless exercised by state entities all over the world and although formally a new term, it was pragmatically speaking just a fresh term for old practices.
Iran is a good example for this argument; well into the Iranian revolution in 1979, ayatollah Khomeini understood perfectly well the principles of soft power, although the game had yet no name; he masterfully synchronized the various opposition forces against the Shah`s regime, utilizing the broader definition of a cultural identity rather than a parochial, nationalistic/political one and promoting the “revolution without borders”. An important extension of this identity bridge between broader Muslim populations also became the clear animosities towards Israel, or “Zionist colonizer”, that introduced Iran as an opposition force toward the established structures of power in the region.
In addition to that, soft power of contemporary Iran is based upon religion, ethics, beliefs, ideology and science. Much of its influence originates in the country`s culture, beauty and spirituality, not to forget its literature, music, folklore and traditions. An element to reckon with is also the historical one for Iranians are ancestors of the great Persian Empire, dating back to 550 BC. What is more, for a country, where the power of the supreme leader is believed to be derived from spiritual sources and based on divine, soft power is arguably a much more influential power than hard power itself. Soft power is here not only a political tool or a herald of national interests, but also a foundation for the national character, able to influence public opinions well beyond the state and regional borders.
Iran is one of those countries that has been a subject to mounting pressure from the global community for at least a couple of decades now, most recently on the supposed military nuclear programme, making the success of soft power policy methods even more vitally important for the achievment of its foreign and domestic policy goals. Country`s rich historical and manifold cultural identity has been an ideal and prolific source for the extended outreach to the world and a well exercised diplomatic practice. From the celebrations of the greatness of Persian Empire to the Shiite imbued identity spill over, Iranian heads of state, diplomats, prominent public figures and businessman have utilized Iran`s historical, civilizational and religious weight to pursue economic, political and strategic goals of Iran in the international community. Therefore, Iran has been very active in combining its geopolitics and cultural might to form a unique mixture of soft power tools, now able to even counter the omnipresent American influence in the region, with broader global implications.
Many of the leverage in the Iranian soft power rests in the values of the Islamic republic, deriving from the Shiite Muslim traditions. The influence is two-fold: one part is composed from creating bonds with Shiite communities all over the world, forming a good basis for support of the country`s policies. The other is centered around promoting the particular Islamic revolution culture and traditions abroad through the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), subordinated directly to the Supreme Leader`s Office. Because of its wide-spread activities and work, away from the spotlight and daily news, the ICRO can be seen as Iran`s leading network of soft power and an important tool for the dispersed recognition of ayatollah`s belief system beyond state borders. The ICRO institute is therefore mainly preoccupied with promoting the values, traditions and views of the country, concentrating on grooming ties with many Shiite Muslim communities around the world, most prolifically in states such as Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and Syria. The ICRO seeks to develop strong ties with local religious communities, establish links with local clerics and hold events on the various key dates in the Shiite Muslim calendar. Additionally, the ICRO has established operating offices in many European countries, promoting the Persian language and literature and according to studies, Iran has reached its peak time of influence over the Persian speaking world population.
The Islamic Republic has also been actively bolstering its economic opportunities in the region, soft power style, forming ties with numerous local businesses and providing energy needs to neighboring countries, particularly Iraq. Iranian business infrastructure exists also as far as Turkey and to a lesser degree in Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. With energy ties expanding thorough Central Asia and all the way to China, the opportunities to influence regional policies are ever emerging. Accordingly, we can recognize many Iranian trade connections and deals as highly strategic in their nature. A good example for this is a state owned car manufacturing factory Khodoro, which is collaborating with Turkey and Malaysia to build cars for Muslim markets. Additionally, the factory is emerging as one of the biggest ones in the Middle Eastern car building industries.
Strategic infrastructure is also part of the Iranian collage of soft power policies. The planned railroad connection between Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran is part of broader efforts to connect Iran to Central Asian republics and also China and Russia; therefore, aligning the country with the recent Chinese idea to revive and apply the old Silk Road concept to modern age options.
All of this can be intertwined with an alternative outlook on the world, not comprising anymore just out of the supposedly supreme power of the US but from many regional great powers, shaping the international political and strategic balance and the countering of American superiority has to be acknowledged as an additional great source for the Iranian soft power. In the black and white world, powered by the alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel which is presenting Iran as belligerent, dangerous, heretical, non- Arab nation, Iran is striving towards the policy of “Neither West or East”, originating from the cold war era of the Islamic revolution, displaying an array of colors in the prism of Middle-Eastern relations. Accordingly, Iran has been masterfully exploiting its many and rich soft power means for forging closer ties with regional neighbors as well as other global allies.
The most slippery terrain for Iranian soft power influence will continue to be the regional religious abyss and misinterpretation of world politics. The profound case for the latter was most blatantly visible in the recent Arab spring uprisings, when Iranian Supreme Leader was widely criticized for labeling the wave of protests and revolutions as “Islamic” instead of revolutions of people of different religions, ethnicities and beliefs, striving for changes particularly in their socio- economic and political regimes. Such oversimplifications do very little for Iranian public image and should be widely avoided in the future.
Iran should therefore continue to rely on its soft power tactics to keep and obtain alliances, promote the non- western establishment, refrain from “over-religioulating” world politics and support the multipolar world order. Additionally, the recent agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue has arguably even strengthen the Iranian disposition as a strong regional actor in the Middle East and the Lausanne agreement has successfully started to crack the propaganda- filled image of an evil and uncooperative Iran, bolstered by the unholy trinity of US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Henceforth, we will hopefully be able to see how old realities fade into oblivion, if confronted with many smart decisions, soft moves and hard victories.