With insecurity threatening to spill across the Middle East and the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna barreling toward a July 20 deadline, the high politics of Iran’s role in the region are under great scrutiny. As a backdrop to these high profile conflicts, the Islamic Republic is quietly working away at its cultural diplomacy in sensitive nations around the world, fashioning soft power tools that are becoming increasingly important in terms of how Tehran seeks to wield its influence.

When it comes to Iranian cultural outreach, the immediate reference point is neighbouring Iraq, where Iran has considerable pull within the majority Shia community. But less well known is the network of Iranian influence that stretches to Shia communities as far as Pakistan.

 

The Supreme Leader’s Arm Abroad

The Islamic Republic enacts its cultural diplomacy through various operations, but chiefly and most actively through its Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation (ICRO), which can be seen as Iranian version of the British Council, or China’s Confucius Institutes. The ICRO’s budget is drawn from Iran’s public coffers and while not immune to state budgetary problems encountered by the government, has received substantial funding from the state to promote the Islamic Republic’s cultural activities abroad. The ICRO employs Iran’s cultural representatives worldwide and while they are affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, they are ultimately subordinate to the Supreme Leader’s office, which directly appoints the ICRO’s chief.

As Iran’s pre-eminent soft power network, the ICRO carries out the more subtle work of Iranian cultural diplomacy away from the headlines, but it is nonetheless an important arm of the Supreme Leader’s authority stretching beyond Iran’s borders. It provides Khamenei with a link to an active part of Iran’s foreign diplomacy, and though Tehran long ago abandoned any active export of the revolution, one of the ICRO’s main aims is to create “awareness of the principles, objectives, and stance of the Islamic Revolution of Iran” .

The ICRO does this by promoting the regime’s worldview to a wider international public, and each local center is headed by a “cultural counsellor” directly appointed through the institution’s headquarters in Iran, rather than through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who employ the bulk of Iran’s diplomatic corps. While the ICRO mainly seeks to cultivate ties with fellow Muslim nations, it maintains offices around the world, including in several European capitals. Along with promoting Persian language and literature, they also cultivate relations with local Shia populations and host religious events.

 

The U.S. concern

The ICRO’s activity has unsettled some U.S. lawmakers. A 2009 report to the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by current Secretary of State John Kerry, notes the prevalence of ICRO centers across the world. It barely conceals its despair at the ICRO’s increasing presence in parts of the world where the U.S. is drawing back on its own public presence, and makes recommendations to urgently reinvigorate American public diplomacy efforts to counter Iran’s activities in this area.

The report is particularly scathing about the lack of public access to “American Embassy Information Resource Centers” in the countries where the ICRO has a presence and maintains publically accessible libraries, which the report notes can “serve as a mouthpiece for anti-American propaganda.” It even goes so far as to allege that ICRO centers have been cited as providing cover for intelligence operatives.

While such unsubstantiated claims cannot be discussed in any depth here, the report demonstrates an American awareness of Iran’s active cultural diplomacy through the ICRO, and the perception of its worth beyond the seemingly benign domain of cultural exchange. The ICRO focuses its energy primarily on fellow Muslim states, and is particularly active in countries with large Shia populations such as Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. It has also been historically active in Iran’s key regional ally Syria.

 

Diplomacy Steeped in Culture

Iran’s diplomatic vision and outreach on the world stage has long made use of the country’s cultural identity. From the ostentatious imperial grandeur exercised by the Shah in his celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy in 1971, to the Shia-imbued cultural outreach activities of the Islamic Republic, Iranian heads of state and diplomats have made use of the country’s historical and civilisational weight to serve its interests on the international stage. Whether it’s preserving Iran from Western cultural onslaught or looking to enhance cultural exchange, such as through former president Mohammad Khatami’s promotion of a “Dialogue among Civilizations”, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has retained a strong cultural flavor.

It is in these areas where Iran has been active with some success. Khatami’s call for intercultural dialogue was instituted at the UN in the 2001 “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations”, a coup that help propel Iran out of its regional and global isolation. Iran has also made use of its historical and cultural links to promote ties with the Central Asian republics, particularly in the fellow Persian-speaking nation of Tajikistan, and also across the border in Afghanistan with some success.

Iranian commentators and political figures have sought to combine its cultural influence, and links with states such as Iraq, with the notion of soft power, highlighting its worth as a tool in Tehran’s international relations—with some going so far to see it as a defensive resource in a wider soft war against Western cultural onslaught. It is perhaps this more defensive posture that is most familiar to the West, but the overall picture is more complex, an interplay of geopolitics and culture that serve the Islamic Republic’s interests well on the international stage.

 

Soft Power in Practice

Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, has spoken of the importance of soft power, and the ICRO’s activities in Pakistan are particularly illustrative of what this means in practice.

The Iran-Pakistan relationship is complicated, straddling numerous points of potential conflict and cooperation. Pakistan has one of the world’s largest Shia communities and, perhaps not coincidentally, is home to the largest number of ICRO offices with eight centers operating out of Hyderabad, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta and Rawalpindi. The centers focus on promoting Persian language and literature, holding regular language classes—this of course in a country that has a long tradition of being influenced by Persian culture—and promote the Islamic Republic’s cultural exports as determined by Tehran. The ICRO are also active in religious circles, making links with local clerics and holding ceremonies on key dates in the Muslim calendar. Iran has a reasonably strong hand in terms of wider historical and cultural commonalities as well as a broadly sympathetic Shia population in Pakistan.

But Iran’s links to Pakistan’s Shiites have not always been welcome by certain groups. The ICRO’s centers in Multan and Lahore were both attacked by Sunni militant groups in 1997, resulting in several fatalities amongst staff working there. The Islamic Republic has cultivated relations with Shia groups that chime with its own worldview in Pakistan. Chief among these is the Imamia Students Association (ISO), who adhere to Khomeini’s velayat-e faqih concept of Islamic jurisprudential rule and view current Supreme Leader Khamenei as their primary spiritual guide. Iran has provided funding for Pakistani religious students to study in Qom, and has sought to take advantage of the comparative lack of high ranking Shia religious figures in Pakistan by promoting its links with the communities there through offering its spiritual guidance.

 

To What Ends?

A cynical view might be to see this as something of an insurance policy. The Islamic Republic sees itself as the leader of the world’s Shiites, and officials have publicly expressed concerns about sectarian attacks against Pakistani Shia.  Iran’s influence amongst Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan Shia communities is well documented; however, pragmatism has thus far always won out in Iran-Pakistan relations. Iran cannot exercise nearly the same power in Pakistan as it can in these three cases, where linguistic and cultural ties are deeper and broader.

This is also due to the complex geopolitical setting that frames Iran-Pakistan relations. Beyond purely confessional linkages, Iran needs to maintain leverage amongst Pakistan’s Shia population as a counter to that state’s close security relationship with Saudi Arabia. All the while Iran needs to be careful not antagonize its powerful neighbor and is careful to limits its work among Pakistani Shiites to religious outreach work via institutions such as the ICRO and rhetorical support for Pakistani Shia activists. While Khamenei is happy to offer his guidance to the community, he needs to maintain pragmatic ambivalence as to his overall influence in Pakistan, so as to avoid antagonizing the Pakistani government and complicating relations.

For Iran, for now, building lower level ties through seemingly less-threatening soft power tools is a more pragmatic and realistic course. Although the Islamic Republic gave up actively exporting the revolution a long time ago, it keeps its hand in with Shia communities worldwide and has proved adept at maintaining its influence through its cultural outreach activities, which serve not only its spiritual/cultural raison d’être but also its wider strategic interests.

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