A public diplomacy lesson from Iran

A public diplomacy lesson from Iran

Mojtaba Barghandan*
In my article published in the Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2015 issue under the title “Iran’s new social media-friendly approach,” I expounded on the necessities that the new cabinet in Iran felt it needed to both revitalize its soft power tools and reach out to the international community through a more moderate, tolerant and open dialogue policy, along with special attention to digital diplomacy and social media to this end. It was also explained how the new administration has managed its social media-friendly approach to fulfill its foreign policy goals, in addition to taking stock of the soft power initiatives undertaken by international actors and the possible obstacles for Iran in employing these same methods. For the last two or three weeks, hundreds of reports and analyses have been published worldwide, some of them critical and biased but most of them praising the way Iran has employed diplomacy to reach what has been described as a “historical achievement.”

“Indeed, a historical victory of rationality and diplomacy over violence.” 

The talks by themselves were a groundbreaking and risky proposition for both sides from the beginning, as players who had been archenemies for more than three decades moved forward, probably looking for a diplomatic opening. Albeit through two-and-a-half years of breathtaking efforts full of false starts, misinterpretations of texts, backward steps and missed deadlines, Iran and the world powers transformed those early initiatives into a nuclear deal that may not only reshape the security landscape of the Middle East and brings blessings for all, but also Iran’s economic condition for the next generation after a hiatus of nearly three decades of sanctions due to the drawn-out nuclear dispute.

As the pivotal actor in global developments, the Islamic Republic of Iran has historically proven to be capable of applying public diplomacy tools; however, it has always been under a “cultural invasion,” alongside economic and political sanctions of the West, for nearly the last four decades ….

The U.S. has employed hard and soft power tools toward Iran, particularly since the administration of President George W. Bush, who approached Iran with a “two clock strategy.” That is, the U.S. government directed its policies at fulfilling two coercive objectives: changing both Iran’s behavior and its regime through instruments of hard and soft power. The change in behavior was geared at curbing Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, which was described as “non-peaceful.” Consequently, the U.S. government tried to slow down and/or reverse this clock (i.e., change behavior) through economic and political pressure. At the same time, it tried to speed up the clock of regime change through instruments of soft power and as a result there was a cultural invasion by means of employing some of the powerful radio and TV channels broadcasting in both the English and Farsi languages.

In light of the White House’s detrimental policies, Iran’s traditional diplomacy tools have not been helpful.

Iran began to believe that in order to win the diplomacy war, it should resort to comprehensive public diplomacy programs that attract, inform, persuade, and influence - that is, the necessity of public diplomacy became almost impossible to ignore and added more importance to digital diplomacy, as they recognized that continuing to practice diplomacy as usual without effective public diplomacy was like trying to run a car without an engine in the digital age of the 21st century. 

Faced with a challenging misinterpretation worldwide, Iran in the new era began its attempts to resolve it through new diplomacy tools based on maximum engagement, as well as employing a new rhetoric based on a “patience-oriented, friendly approach” towards diplomacy, which in many ways helped to harmonize and reconcile inconsistencies between its foreign policy and public diplomacy.

The U.S., on the other hand, reached the same level of understanding of the necessity of transformation through its coercive and sanction-oriented policies on Iran to a negotiation and soft diplomacy-based policy beginning in 2013. As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in an interview published in the Huffington Post, “We have done the same thing over and over again and there hasn’t been any change - [we] should try something different…” President Obama took charge of “trying something different” with Iran and Cuba, initiating discrete and patient diplomatic approaches and the world has witnessed the outcomes of its peaceful diplomacy with both countries.

Having the nuclear deal done for the Islamic Republic of Iran was not a matter of  just rolling the dice, but diplomatically tactful and breathtaking efforts undertaken with close strategic attention to the red lines and technical and legal issues, along with tactful management in maximum application of its diplomacy capacity.

In fact, to “resort to an enduring diplomacy” has been the magic tool managed by Foreign Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team in what was described as “the most breathtaking, torturous and elongated talks.” The way Iran managed the “diplomacy” ultimately shaped the success for the country, which undoubtedly affects the entirety of Iran’s domestic and international issues. The later will, of course, influence the condition and future of its social media-friendly approaches to diplomacy in the coming periods.

Besides some very sensitive historical political achievements fulfilled by this deal, I believe Iran has transformed from a traditional regional power to a mature and modern power. It has become more familiar with the mechanisms of the international system. This historical achievement can also be taken as a reminder for Iranian officials to pay more attention to the importance of maintaining their capabilities in managing the application of diplomacy in the domestic scene and strengthening ongoing social media-friendly approaches to diplomacy in the coming periods. This peaceful approach would also be a free of charge historical training course for others in the region, perhaps.

A country that is willing to achieve the status of a modern global or regional power is in need of promoting the values and objectives in the minds and hearts of the target communities by a persuasive approach and respect for universal policy, that is, to resort to diplomacy but not violence. This is the approach adopted by the Islamic Republic of Iran which helped it to manage the historical Nuclear Accord.

*Mojtaba Barghandan is a staff member of the Consulate General of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Istanbul. The content of this article is based on the author’s personal views