Major Pillars of Iranian Public Diplomacy

Firas Elias

Translated by Shaimaa Shedeed



General constitutive

Iran is regarded as one of the influential states in the Middle East, especially under the light of its cultural and civilizational assets in addition to its significant geostrategic location that remarks all essentials needed for a state of comprehensive power; accordingly, the Iranian state became one of the principal powers that can’t be ignored. Since the strategy currently performed or likely to be performed by Iran in the future shall be based on its resources and assets as pillars for a strong national unity and in order to be able to know the nature of the Iranian roles in the Middle East, we have to examine elements of its comprehensive power that includes the connatural aspect consisting of geopolitical, political, intellectual, economic and military assets, mainly  because such role or strategy the state is looking forward to dig more into its potentials. Such resources and assets affect Iran’s basic choices in its regional strategy, in addition, its external environment negatively and positively impact its role in the Middle East. In view of what has been stated, in this study we are shedding light on the most significant basic pillars of the Iranian national diplomacy, as follows:

Iranian political discourse

Whoever follows the Iranian political discourse lately can notice the return of the concept “export of revolution” to the prefaces, as the old political terms related to the 1980s era are remarkably recrudesced especially those locutions used during the climax of the Iranian effervescence when sustained endeavors were undertaken to export the revolution and its ideological and political frame to the neighboring countries. The evidence suggests that the “export of revolution” term is one of the problematic issues caused complicated relation between Iran and its regional neighbors since the outbreak of 1979 revolution that witnessed the Iranian transition from a civil state to a religious Islamic state of theocratic trait and such shift’s repercussions on the international relations levels that were commonly accepted and stereotyped ahead of such change, especially after the disappearance of the religious states that figures in everyone’s minds the past centuries of middle ages in Europe.

The pillars of the Iranian discourse whether (historical, cultural, philosophic, theoretical, etc) disclose how the strategic Iranian mind attaches particular concern to the western audience who top the list of targeted addressees, which proceed from the priorities of the Iranian foreign policy and its estimation for the specific weight of such congregation in policies of both world and region. It actually depends on its standards (western standards) in profiling the rivals such as (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

All of that clearly attests that the revolutionary reflection has always been the basic pillar in the Iranian political discourse, as Iran could through such speech win vast segments of public opinion in favor, especially on the regional level. Actually, Iran made use of such precept in its deal with America and the western world, employing it in the frame of its efforts to reinforce its soft power in the region. Besides, Iran meant through its speech supporting Palestine to exceed those two aforementioned sides in order to create suitable environment through which the Iranian regional role can be accepted.


Comprehensive development

The key concept of the state’s position in the structure of the international political order largely forms its attitudes towards other states as the international political order is characterized by the gradual design of the basic units, furthermore, the structure of every state can be outlined in such order in accordance to group of effects under which the states are divided into upper unites and lower units. Thus, if we imagine the indexes outlining the state’s prestige in the order are the military power, the manufacturing level, the educational level and the per capita level of income, a specific unit shall be expected of high rank according to the five indexes while other unit shall be low ranked under the shadow of the same indexes. As for the rank theory, those states suffer lack of poise in its international place  would rather use power to carry out its foreign policies in a bid to reach its desired rank, therefore, such state resorts to the fighting force manner to execute the foreign policy, especially towards those countries of high and balanced esteem. Thereupon, the foreign policy of such unbalanced states can be noticed vigorous in carrying out its foreign policy. The logic of such  analysis is based on the idea that the deranged position is resulted in constant pressure to seek movements on the way of balance due to the uneven treatment such states receive from other countries.

As for the comprehensive development, it means the capability to cure all weaknesses aspects in all state’s sectors and fields whether political, economic or social and the capacity to make use of the individuals’ powers in a way can heal the fragility and shortage in such sectors, benefitting from the comprehensive development to get rid of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. The comprehensive development aims at achieving group of goals of some sectors. For example, the economic sector where such development seeks increasing the productivity, raising the living level and overcoming poverty, some fitting solutions should such as booming investments and ensuring the citizen’s right of dignified quality of life, while on the social level, the comprehensive development works on developing the human factor by improving capabilities and skills, achieving welfare, and increasing awareness and culture through spreading knowledge, increasing experts and scientists in addition to qualified people, while on the political level, such development seeks preserving the statehood, increasing power and maintaining independence in order to be able to face all challenges whether on the internal level or the external one.

Based on what has been stated above and its relation with Iran. We can notice that Iran in its constant endeavor to establish stature is focusing on the military and technical techniques more than developing its constitutional and political institutions and respecting democracy, political pluralism, human rights and international treaties as such stature factors representing pivotal issue in the foreign policy systems, while the international community can’t pay respect to a state through using such factors in its constitutional and political domain. These elements are the core reason that can get a state international reputation and prestigious standing and thence authority. The transition towards the democracy can’t be through constitution and elections only, although the presidential elections of May 2017 were the twelfth since the revolution outbreak and can be seen as evidence for the vitality of the Iranian political system. Not only has the democratic case of Iran got faces, but also has divisions in its religious dictatorship. For instance, broad power of the advisory, authority and control of the guardian council of the constitution over the electoral process by choosing the nominees for both parliamentary and presidential elections and constrained powers of the president, which undoubtedly detract from the Iranian democracy and the Iranian model.

It is clear from what precedes that Iran could accomplish some developmental achievements but couldn’t achieve the comprehensive perspective of the sustainable development, which is manifested in the massive protests not only in the grass-roots and the middle classes but also in the political elite that was divided and discarded after Ahmadinejad’s victory of second presidential term. This means that the Iranian regime is still suffering tumultuous changes in its social structure resulted in demonstrations, fires, clashes, dead people and detention of thousands, getting out a fact that the ruling regime has lost a part from his social floor due to its failure to express about the dynamism of the Iranian society. All of this pointed to the ruling class disablement to achieve the sustainable and comprehensive development under the light of the gap increase between the ruling regime and its public floor. Such gap will be exploited by the foreign stalkers especially the United States of America in order to incur more sanctions against Iran, which affects its foreign policy and highlights a weakness in the Iranian political system can be dubbed as a critical issue the international powers will work to make use of. Still, hopes for a promising future depend on the Iranian capability to reach an integrated and sustainable vision for development so as to attain self- independence.

The geopolitical structure doesn’t only consist of two political doers or through the subjective will, but there are some structural and subjective factors practicing overriding influence on the doer and his imagination and  exercising oppression over his role. The political action isn’t only affected but also formed according to such structural, political and geopolitical factors. Actually, the relation isn’t unilateral and can’t be expressed under the light of generalization characterized by the law and its generality. Without going into the sterile debate about the relation between the agency and structure or between subject and object, we will tackle the Iranian political act and the Iranian subjective will. Indeed, the Iranian political act and the Iranian subjective will can’t be completely detached from the international and regional geopolitical structure settings and the environmental factors whether local or international. Truly, the domination forms, the ideological power, the economic situations, the high proportion of population, the American dominance over the world, and the relation between Iran and its neighboring countries and states of interests in the region restrict the Iranian freedom and impose a plan Iran should carry out in accordance with such structural factors or to work in a manner corresponding to the available and suitable while considering all these factors according to precise summation.

Thus, we can say that despite the Iranian experience affluence, what we can extract from it can’t necessarily be generalized out of its scope, especially because its regime came according to the imamate theory in the Shia jurisprudence that copes with the Shiite character and its civilizational and intellectual heritage and political culture, which reflects the singularity of the Iranian case. Hence, such model can’t be applied out of the Iranian particularity, which weakens the possibility of getting Iran the center of the Islamic world or “Um al- Qura” as per the Iranian expression, which in itself forming a failure in the Iranian model and another shortage in its foreign policy and means that the Iranian ambitions drain its resources in an illusionary project and a dream can’t be real. Even the success that has been achieved in such aspect has been reached as a result of exceptional circumstances and due to the instability and vacuity in the Iranian geopolitical circumference.

Ideologies and doctrines

The state’s ideology in Iran took a track different to those ideologies in other places of the Middle East. The Iranian nationalism emerged during the “constitutional revolution” in years between 1906 and 1911, opposing the regime of Qajar royal dynasty that began to deteriorate by the end of its rule and such doctrine was entirely adopted by the state’s innovators during the rule of Reda Shah Bahlawy (1941-1925). Although the nationalism of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mosaddeq (1952-1951) alarmed the western world, he and his allies in the Iranian “National Front” weren’t ideology advocates. The Iranian leadership succeeded in suppressing the “Tudeh” party and his communist vision, what’s more, there were some secondary factors played a role during that time such as the fascist “ SUMKA” party or “labor national socialist party”, nevertheless, this party has returned to the field thanks to the trend of Iran’s greater maps restoration taken by the former leader of the Iranian revolutionary Guard Mohsen Rezaee and the probability of using it by the generals of the revolutionary guard. Meanwhile, the ideology of Maududy and Qutb began to get into Iran stealthily through the translated works in the beginning of 1970, however, it faded in front of the Revolutionary Islamic modernist and selective ideologies that were spread by Shariaty (the Iranian Islamic thinker who died in 1974), thus, the Khomeini followers didn’t adopt a hostile language against the Clergy(anti-clerical) that was called by Shariaty, nevertheless, during the Islamic revolution in 1979 and promptly after it, Ayatollah Mohamed Beheshty and Hassan Ayat established an adapting ideology supporting the Clergy to replace it.

Since the Iranian revolution outbreak in 1979, the successes that could be achieved on all levels including the internal level and the regional and the international ones and the slogans that could be raised were by defending the vulnerable and oppressed people against the great villain and the international dominating forces. Those successes emerged when the Arab national project was suffering lots of cracks, definitely after Camp David treaty between Egypt and Israel and its consequences on the Arab regional regime, especially because many Arab social classes specifically those against the American domination found in the Iranian revolution the model that should be followed, which represented a springboard for the armed groups and parties that paralleled the Iranian regional strategy in the Middle East especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait.

Both doctrine and ideology represented basic pillar for Iran’s revolutionary vision especially in its first decade and still Khomeini’s quote “We are facing the whole world in a doctrinal confrontation” is the sincerest expression about such fact. The revolution actually presented a new and unique oratorical language to express about the external and the internal audience. This language was marked by the Islamic concepts through the integration of emotional and effective excerption from the Holy Quran, which resulted in reaching desired emotional impact on the audience and the basic criterion for the discrimination and differentiation could have been summarized on the external level in the term “arrogance”. In that vein, the Iranian politicians and thinkers dealt with the Arab from their doctrinal point of view, as evidenced by their disability to be emancipated from the first historical and civilizational heritage in order to establish their minds on intellectual ideological doctrine founded on a will looking forward to an archaic empire and it was clear that the action of promotion for an (Islamic Middle Eastern) project was nothing else but a step in this regard.

The Iranian doctrine arguably seems as a political embracer for the relation determinants between Iran and the Arabs as the Iranian political attitude stemmed from article number 152 of the Iranian constitution about the Iranian foreign policy was but an attempt to employ the religion in the foreign policy as a soft power in order to reinforce its political presence in the region. In the same context, the religious discourse and the constant attempts to focus on the vulnerable minorities in the region was another way to export the idea of the Iranian revolution. In the same frame of the religious work and throughout that period, the political discourse issued from Tehran was trying to reflect the religious Shiite identity specifically after the establishment of the “Islamic” republic, leading to  a back off in the national discourse ever since. The tides in the Iranian-Arab relations can be summarized in some important stages started with the establishment of the “Islamic republic” in Iran and the adoption of the principle of revolution export and the extension ideology as a way to get through the Arab world.

Iran tried to make use of the downfall of some Arab regimes after the Arab spring revolutions in a bid to gain a new floor in the region and to promote the Iranian political model. In this regard, Iran rushed into talking about the emergence of a new Middle East on the rubbles of the fallen regimes. in that moment Iran recalled its project about establishing Islamic Middle East in confrontation to the projects suggested by United States of America after Iraq occupation in 2003 such as “The greater Middle East” and “The expanded Middle East” and it doesn’t hesitate to interfere in the neighboring countries’ affairs, using solid tools represented in the military tool in addition to other cultural and doctrinal tools in a bid to achieve its doctrinal and ideological model.

Therefore, the heart of the Iranian doctrine and Ideology is based on the idea of dominating the region. Such idea is built upon supporting the Shiite minorities in the region and enabling them politically, which points to a grand project aroused fear of number of Arab countries that was looking at Iran with fear and doubt in consideration of its attempts to destabilize their states through triggering the Shiite minorities.

The historical depth

The historical factor is one of the important factors in Iran’s foreign policy as it in conjunction with the geographic anchor controls the way Iranian policy towards the Arab region is drawn and drafted. The Iranian leadership uses such component to understand the past and benefit from in gaining the support of the current generation on both patriotic and intellectual levels and to identify and draft its point of views about the future. Actually, through the history of the Iranian state that emerged 12 centuries before Islam, Iran could impose its domination over vast areas east and west, so the historical factor became for the Iranian state an important factor in drafting its policy, considering such factor a base and an approach in external expansion policy. In fact, during the rule of the consecutive regimes and the current one Iran depended on the superior treatment principle with the Arabs, depending on the historical factor when the Persian empire had a power on some Arab countries as an empire of military control and expansion.

Iran reconciled with its empirical Persian past during the rule of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani after Khamenei who occupied the post of president before being the Grand Advisory. Khomenei had been denying the greatness and value of historical Persepolis; rather, he considered it a black front for the rude domination of its emperors. Unlike him, Rafsanjani, the first Iranian Islamic leader had the initiative to visit Persepolis, asserting the historical and strategic depth of the Persian Empire, besides, he called on the Iranians to be proud of such history and to seek for its revival. Actually, it was the first initiative from a state leader of a religious background seeking the revival of the victories of ancient Persia like the Shah preceded him. Going the same way, the current president Hassan Rouhani in a frank indication to the Sasanian Empire said “Today Iran became an empire like its covenant across the history. Baghdad has always been its capital and the center of its identity, civilization and culture and will remain so.” Although the Iranian authorities announced that his statements were altered and taken out of its context, it wasn’t denied.

Therefore, the historical component represents one of the major dimensions from which Iran is seeking for benefitting in order to inject new blood in its regional project. Actually, the matter of depending on a historical depth was always a major pillar in the states’ strategies especially in our world which began to give the historical depth a big concern definitely in the stage of post-cold war that paralleled with the emergence of new intellectual theses such as those theses introduced by the American thinker Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations. Huntington indicated that the civilizational conflict will be confined to be among the western civilization, Confucius civilization and the Islamic one. Iran saw such idea an entrance to accentuate its civilizational and historical depth through the initiative introduced by the former president Mohamed Kahtamy for a civilization dialogue. Such initiative purpose was to introduce Iran as a universal frame exceeds the regional borders through highlighting its historical and civilizational model combined with its Islamic doctrinal philosophy. Such model should be recognized and dealt with as a civilizational and Islamic paradigm capable of creating innovations and doing initiatives.

In Iran’s point of view, it is the sole country qualified for supervising the current transition in the Middle East, especially the political Iranian elite who consider the Iranian regime as the most suitable religiously in comparison to the democratic political systems of other neighboring kingdoms. In addition, they consider that Iran’s rule will be sustainable in view of its capability to survive from the war with Iraq, the international sanctions and the local grand demonstrations. Besides, the Iranian elite are fully convinced that Iran owns a unique civilizational vision like china, Russia and the west, such vision, according to their minds, some neighboring countries miss. It is also conspicuous that Iran’s rulers believe that their regime has a historical and cultural legitimacy as since the 16th century when the safavid Shiite dynasties imposed the doctrinal system in Iran, the political legitimacy of Iran – to great extent- depended on the support of the most respectful religious Shiite authorities during that era. In 1979, the “Islamic” Iranian revolution regained the “Islamic” rule that formed the Iranian policy and the Iranian community for a period exceeds the past millennium. As for the Iranian elite’s point of view, the jurist (Faqih) rule in the modern Iran matches the heritage of the Iranian community and its identity, plus, it reinforces the elite’s trust in the way their government represents the people, however, the Iranian gradual expansion shifted the state gradually to unwelcomed stranger.

The civilizational depth

The theory of the doctrinal rule was merely an episode of successive episodes in the series of the Shiite political ideology and the relation type between the jurist and the rule. The Shiite Jurist Ahmed Alnaraqi (1829) was one of the most prominent features of such theory as he played a vital role in transferring the Shiite political ideology to a new phase on the levels of the relation between the jurist and the power and the development of the public representation  from “the kings authorization” to “the jurists resist” against the ruling power in a way exceeded the “waiting” process in order to recrystallize the general representation theory to be shifted from the jurist representation on behalf of the absent Imam, which in itself is controlled by the theory of “absence and waiting”, to the “absolute guardianship of the jurist”. Therefore, the Khomeini came later and took such episode added by the Shiite political thinker Alnaraqi to the theoretical frame from the practical one, attempting to reach its highest degree which is the absolute guardianship of the jurist and then getting the jurist to the highest degrees of power. Although the supporters of the absolute guardianship of the jurist are promoting some evidences for the fundamentality of the absolute guardianship of the jurist, there are number of those in the Shiite political ideology cycle see such theory a mere effort from the fundamentalists similar to other theories in this ideology.

Some of the most important theories on which the Iranian political foreign policy were built are as follows:

  • The Islamic “Shiite” nationalism theory that were set out by Mahdi Bazargan adopting the idea of believing in the “Awaited Mahdi”, the holder of the justice and freedom flag, as Iran should in his absence time employ different fortunes and policies in the world in order to achieve some national Iranian goals, paving the way for his return.
  • Export of Iranian Khomeini revolution theory, believing one of the most important functions of the Islamic Iranian state is to establish a universal fair government.
  • The Guardian Jurist theory which considers the reference “must be obeyed” in the Islamic world.
  • The Um alQura theory which is based on the concept that Iran is the center of the universal “Islam” and that its Guardian jurist is the sole leader and that Qum is the temporarily alternative for Mecca.

In addition to these theories, the theory of the “Islamic Middle East” that implies the domination over the entire Middle East (including the Arab world) and implies the establishment of Islamic government led by Iran. It actually intersects with the greater and expanded Middle East theories of (Israel and America). Such theories aims at dividing the region according to colonial and ideological bases, serving the interests of the powers dominating this region where is the Arab world is mainly targeted in a bid to remove its role in its strategies and to overcome its political, economic, and civilizational efficiency.

The analyzer of Iran’s power and its mindsets about the Iranian regional and universal role can’t deny that there are some resources can share in carrying out some of these mindsets and that Iran is actually investing such resources in its project, but necessarily there are some obstacles topped by the gap between the planned role and the potentials for implementation. Yes, Iran has a strong political will and it aims at playing an ambitious regional and universal role as per its leaders’ repeated saying in the international forums. Moreover, Iran targets the establishment of an international multi-polar system where Iran represents an international and pivotal polar, challenging the American domination or the domination of a sole polar. However, there is a big difference between the desire and the reality, actually there is a problem in this regard as Iran owns the resources that qualifies it for playing a regional and pivotal role, but regarding the mindsets related to the (Guardianship theories) that affects necessarily the Iranian political foreign republican policies, there is a sort of exaggeration. Such theories work on a self-aggrandizement where Iran draws a role for itself surpasses its role as a worldly state led by human beings. Such holistic strategy undoubtedly includes vacuum as Iran supposes that the world is empty and it seeks for filling it. Such totalitarianism can be easily noticed in the statements of the Iranian leadership and it supposes that Iran is the constant headquarter from which the branches emerge and the rays emanate and puts forward the idea that Iran is self-sustained needs nothing from the others. For example, “The Umm al-Qura theory” aims at making Qum and Tehran Umm al-Qura rather than Mecca or the center of the Islamic world and the capital for all Muslims where the Islamic leadership is existed in order to lead the nation through the guardian jurist or according to the former Iranian President Ahmadi Nejad in his statement in New York in September 2005 “A nation owns a history and civilization of thousands of years and the world owes us many moral and humane values and we still have the inherent leadership to lead the world for the good values and what we want in order to achieve this goal isn’t only understanding ourselves but also believing in it.”

It is enough to log into the website of the Iranian Foreign Ministry to see plentiful statements about the Iranian position and the Iranian great civilization and about how the Iranians are distinguished and unique. According to such statements on the websites, the Iranians are always generous and give for nothing in return in a continuous unlimited bestowment as if they’re the lifeblood and its spiritual resource for other nations. Actually, such way they depict themselves points to the self-aggrandizement and the desire to elevate the Iranian status and position and indeed it finds its position and estimation in the Iranian minds reflected in the way they’re proud of their civilization and culture so we have statements like: “The Iranian renaissance is one of the humane civilization centers in the historical ages in Asia continent and the world and it has a specific important position”, “Iran holds a unique position not only in the Middle East but also in the whole world”, “Its majestic civilizational location throughout the history increased its value”, and “This enabled Iran to be rich of a civilizational and promoted experience to be a teacher of development humanely, politically and culturally on the national, regional and international levels”. It praises its role, capabilities and powers in the fields of the heavy industries and the scientific, developmental and technological achievements, “Which granted our country a prestigious place politically, economically and culturally and on the touristic level and made it the focus of the attention of the region and whole world and an incompatible number in all regional and international equations”. Even in the poetry and literature field, Iran eulogizes the value of its literature and poetry saying for example: “The old and modern Iranian poetry presented burgeoning and glowing images”, it is actually a distinctive verse so we can also read “The Persian verse motivated the Iranians to pour their poetical creativities in special templates giving them a sense of uniqueness”, and they consider themselves they “have enriched the humane civilization”. It may be inferred from the foregoing that the civilizational dimension of Iran formed an important rider for the Iranian strategy and foreign policy and treatment in the Middle East whether politically, religiously or strategically.

The conclusion

Iran represented one of the grand regional forces in the Middle East that has variable group of soft power elements. This is in addition to Iran’s advantages in itself which it has been seeking for investing optimally in order to promote its policy regionally and internationally. The Islamic ideology and the Shiite doctrine beside the ancient Persian civilization can be seen as success factors in the Iranian public diplomacy. In addition, Iran’s foreign policy discourse addressing the dictatorial regimes and the world arrogance powers and its support for the Palestinian issue and hostility towards Israel stood as pillars for the Iranian foreign policy in its soft invasion in the neighboring countries and the region. Meanwhile, such pillars represented pull factors for many political and military groups adopting the same concepts ad terms.

On the other side, despite the successes achieved by Iran in the field of employing the soft powers, Iran faced a problem of the arising contradictions between its political discourse and its soft practices. While Iran is dedicating all soft powers to persuade the world with the success of its political model, it practices solid foreign policies targeting the removal of borders and the repeal of states sovereignties through its intervention in other states’ affairs.

The way the pillars of Iranian Public policy were used played a vital role in the access of the Iranian foreign policy in many fields of the Middle East. Moreover, Iran could provide a supporting tools by getting the solid power a smoother for such fields’ way, in other words, the Iranian solid power in many times play a role in the process of opening the road for the soft powers to get into and influence the Middle East, exactly like what is currently happening in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. However, despite the considerable efforts exerted by Iran in this field, such applicable roles practiced by Iran in the Middle East today took a great deal of its public diplomacy political influence and content.


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