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Iran's cultural relations with Central Asia and Afghanistan

6 Jul 2021 - 9:47

Culture and cultural relations, in the form of public diplomacy and as one of the most important fields of foreign relations between Iran and the world, have always been under the spotlight since the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Meanwhile, the integration of Iran’s cultural sectors and reorganization of advertising mechanisms of 12 governmental and public institutions operating abroad was realized in 1995 through the establishment of the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, with the aim of "creating a centralized management, and achieving a unified policy and coordination in term of cultural activities abroad."

By:Behrooz Qazal

Culture and cultural relations, in the form of public diplomacy and as one of the most important fields of foreign relations between Iran and the world, have always been under the spotlight since the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Meanwhile, the integration of Iran’s cultural sectors and reorganization of advertising mechanisms of 12 governmental and public institutions operating abroad was realized in 1995 through the establishment of the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, with the aim of "creating a centralized management, and achieving a unified policy and coordination in term of cultural activities abroad."

Since then, the Cultural Offices of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been set up in most embassies and are still operating. The cultural offices are recognized as the most important agents of Iran’s cultural relations with other countries, which are directly responsible for the establishment and expansion of cultural relations.

 In the meantime, given the increasing interconnectedness of cultural fields with other fields, significant changes in the political and foreign policy strategies of countries (including Iran), and rapid development of communication technologies in recent decades, the cultural communications have gone beyond their traditional context and, in addition to imposing new restrictions on the official agents of cultural relations in recent years, they have provided a soft ground for the presence of informal actors who use new and flexible tools for cultural activism. The cultural ties between Iran and other countries of the Persian civilization sphere is also one of the areas that have been seriously affected by these developments.
So, in order to examine cultural relations with the countries of the Persian civilizational sphere, some facts should be considered in the first place:

* First, recognition of these countries, contrary to what may seem at the first glance, is not easy.

* Second, the scope and depth of these relations have been influenced by two general contexts in recent years: the general developments in the regional and international political environment on the one hand, and the decisions and foreign policy orientations on the other.

* And third, the developments of the domestic and foreign policy approaches of the countries of this ​​civilization (in general or in relation to Iran in particular), in addition to the general course of recent developments (development of new communication technologies and entanglement of cultural and non-cultural contexts), have affected the cultural communication environment of Iran and these countries.

In this report, after recognizing the countries of “the Persian language civilizational sphere" and investigating their similarities with other examples and concepts, we will have a brief overview of the characteristics of cultural relations between Iran and these countries. Then, an attempt has been made to identify ways to expand these communications and to suggest some methods aimed at removing the existing obstacles.
Persian-speaking countries, Persian-speaking societies, common civilizational sphere
One of the first issues related to the cultural relations with the Persian-speaking civilizational sphere is to identify the examples and then determine their relationship with the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, first of all, it must be clarified that whether the audience of our cultural relations are the Persian-speaking countries (meaning independent national governments)? Or the Persian-speaking communities (Persian-speaking communities and groups, even without independent governments)? Or the people who we believe share a common cultural background with us (even if they are not speaking in Persian now)?

It is clear that the type of audience of Iran's cultural relations and foreign policy based on each of these categories, will essentially lead to a different experience in terms of establishing or expanding relations. It will also create dissimilar opportunities and limitations for the activism of cultural diplomacy agents.

In addition to the field of diplomacy and the executive areas of international cultural relations, determining the spectrum of Persian speakers outside Iran is also significant in the scientific and research literature and media productions. In some cases, by limiting the geographical scope of the Persian-speaking civilization to national governments that have chosen one form of this language (Persian, Dari, Tajik) as their national or official language, only the three countries of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have been included in the Persian-speaking geography of the world.

In contrast, another part of this literature focuses not on governments but on small or large communities that are somehow considered as Persian-speaking. In this context, many ethnic minorities in Uzbekistan (especially in Bukhara and Samarkand), India, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Kashmir, China, Bahrain and Oman are also considered as the Persian speakers of the world. Moreover, some cultural subgroups in the Russian Federation, Yemen, the UAE, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and even Canada, the United States, Australia, and European countries can be listed in this category.

For example, it seems that naming of one of the subsidiary mechanisms of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) as “The Association for the Study of Persianate Societies" is consistent with this interpretation of the identity of the world’s Persian speakers.
Nevertheless, perhaps one of the most important examples of the "Persian language sphere", via a broad interpretation of Persian language as a combination of Persian culture and Iranian civilization, is the common historical and civilizational sphere or geography of the Iranian culture which displays the factors of convergence and cultural ties beyond language, and in different shapes of cultural heritage, civilizational similarities, and historical rituals. The common civilizational sphere is wider than the "Persian-speaking countries" on the one hand, and more cohesive than the "Persian-speaking societies" on the other. At the same time, its advantage over the other two sides is the flexibility of policy and implementation, as well as the pragmatic nature of its results. These features can lead to more convergence among the interconnected countries via reduction of Identity sensitivities of the target governments and pushing them towards the multilateral regional and international mechanisms.

The ​​common civilization sphere with Iran includes Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), Afghanistan, South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), North Caucasus (Russian Federation republics in the northern Caspian Sea), Tibet and the Pamirs, Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh), East China (Xinjiang), Anatolia and the Balkans (Turkey and Bosnia), Shamat (Syria) and parts of Iraq.
Formal and informal platforms of cultural communications (cultural diplomacy and modern diplomacy)
The official platform of cultural communication is cultural diplomacy, which is led by the governments and uses cultural tools and capacities to support the foreign policy goals. This type of diplomacy can be divided into three category of contextual, legal and executive branches, which emphasizes on improvement of education, culture, communications, public policy, good governance and cultural rights. The cultural diplomacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is aimed at providing an effective tool to improve the image of the country in the international community and increase Iran’s cultural influence and soft power in the world. Meanwhile, following a series of changes in the global structures and deterioration of the governments’ sovereignty, the growth of non-governmental actors and the increasing global awareness, traditional diplomacy has also changed. The modern diplomacy is a new phenomenon in the context of global civil society in which new communication technologies, new governmental and non-governmental organizations, people, pressure groups, professional associations, etc., play more significant roles in the global affairs.

Accordingly, the issues of international relations, crises and challenges, and the issues of the new world are so complex that the official agents and traditional diplomacy alone will not be able to manage them. Thus, modern diplomacy is an inevitable arena for the coexistence of formal agents on the one hand, and multiple and informal actors on the other. In addition to eliminating the time factor in annoying bureaucracies, the modern diplomacy would give flexible communication tools to the actors.

Another interesting point about modern diplomacy is that it is able to appear as a complement to cultural diplomacy and also may emerge as a rival for it. Ignoring the methods and effects of modern diplomacy will inevitably weaken the cultural diplomacy by reducing its scope and depth as well as wasting its resources. It is worth mentioning that an important part of problems in the Persian-speaking civilizational sphere stems from lack of sufficient attention to the synergy of these two types of diplomacy.

In the recent years, the international structural pressures, promotion of the Iranophobia discourse, and efforts of the regional and trans-regional rivals to isolate Iran have somehow overshadowed the initial attractions of the revolutionary Islamism, the discourse of justice, and the idealistic image of Iran which is based on supporting the oppressed. The economic problems and their external reflection, difficulty of foreign trade and devaluation of Iran’s national currency have also affected the image of the country. Meanwhile, the attacks of the Persian-language and non-Persian-language media generally works to distort Iran’s national image, create negative sensitivities, and discredit the cultural diplomacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Another feature is related to the experience of the most important (and perhaps the largest) group of the Persian-speaking people outside Iran, the Afghans, who have spent parts of their lives in Iran during Afghanistan’s civil war. Despite some good experiences, they have probably had a significant portion of unfavorable experiences as well. In such a complex environment, the official functions and announcements of cultural diplomacy would lose their real impacts in the face of the volume and speed of information that is transmitted through the informal channels.

But perhaps the most important feature of cultural relations between Iran and the Persian language civilizational sphere in the recent decades has been that these relations have been affected by a kind of incompatibility. In these decades, the Arab region and southwest Asia have turned into the main focus of Iran’s foreign policy and cultural relations. The countries of southwest Asia, even the Arab countries, are home to the Persian-speaking communities, and a range of common Islamic-civilizational backgrounds and cultural ties among Iran and these countries can be discerned. Nevertheless, the factor of Persian language heritage and its related cultural elements only consist a minor part of these relations.

In contrast, the main geography of the Persian civilizational sphere is located in the Iran’s​northeastern surrounding areas, namely Central Asia and Afghanistan (or Greater Khorasan and Transoxiana). An area that, despite nearly three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the independent political life of its governments, has so far not received a proper attention in term of foreign policy and cultural relations. This situation has limited the convergence capacities of the Persian civilizational sphere and imposed unwanted costs.

On the other hand, the Persian-speaking country of Afghanistan has been facing constant instability and successive political-security crises in recent decades. The rise of religious groups, invasion of the western coalition forces, escalation of ethnic rivalries, economic chaos, and weakening of the central government are just a minor part of troubles the country has experienced in recent years. Needless to say, the poor quality of Iran-Afghanistan cultural relations has inevitably been affected by these developments, and there has been no opportunity for the crystallization of the two countries' cultural convergence capacities. Other countries in the northeast, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have also become an arena for the activities of Iran's regional and trans-regional rivals. This has created an atmosphere of false competition between the Persian and Turkish cultural elements.

The presence of a predominant population of Sunni Muslims in Iran’s northeastern surrounding areas (or the Persian civilizational sphere) is another factor that has added to the incompatibility of demands and achievements of cultural relations between Iran and these countries. In Afghanistan, although there are no accurate statistics on demographic composition of ethnicities and religions, it is clear that the Sunnis are in majority.

The situation is similar in the Persian-speaking country of Tajikistan. In other Central Asian countries, the Hanafi Sunnis consist the majority. This comes as the content of many of Iran's official cultural programs with these countries is often religious in nature. These conditions, in addition to increasing the sensitivity of religious institutions and central governments towards the cultural activities of Iran, have paved the way for the rival or hostile actors to question Iran's cultural goals in these areas.

However, in the recent years, Iran has gained significant achievements in terms of cultural relations with the Persian civilizational sphere (especially Afghanistan), and various documents in the field of cultural cooperation have been signed between Iran and these countries (especially Tajikistan). But, the main concern is the comparison of these achievements with the existing capacities of cultural convergence on the one hand, and the quality of implementation of the official documents and policies on the other. This comparison shows that there is a clear gap between the current state of cultural relations and its desired state. This gap, on the one hand, arises from the position of the Persian civilizational sphere in macro-foreign policy strategies, and on the other hand, is the result of incompatibility of approaches and methods of cultural communication with the indigenous realities and characteristics of the region.
Recommendations for development of cultural relations with the Persian civilizational sphere
According to what has been said and based on the experience of the recent decades, we here recommend some approaches and strategies for the development of cultural relations between Iran and the surrounding Persian-speaking countries:

Avoiding monopoly: One of the things that should be avoided in cultural relations with the Persian civilizational sphere is induction a sense of ownership to the common cultural and civilizational elements. In other words, the policy-making processes as well as the media coverage of the joint cultural activities should not be in a way that attribute the material and spiritual heritage of the Persian civilization to Iran (or any of partner countries). This is important because many of these elements are materialized as components of the national identity of these countries (in the field of state-building), and so there are special sensitivities about them. 

Avoiding to highlight the religious factor: Due to the religious (and political) structure of the Persian-speaking countries, it is better to avoid highlighting the religious factors (especially in the propaganda activities) in the cultural communications. On the other hand, the indigenous context of the culture and religious identity of these countries, has many similarities with the religious teachings of Iran, and so by reducing the sensitivities and increasing the mutual trust, a more suitable (more efficient) context for convergence and transmission of the Islamic values will be provided.

Avoiding to induce the role of an “elder brother”: One of the basic issues in development and stability of cultural relations with the Persian-speaking periphery is to adhere to the principles of mutual respect and non-interference in the domestic politics as well as define an equal position in cultural and political relations. In other words, ensuring a safe political and security margin is one of the guarantees of stability of cultural relations between Iran and the Persian-speaking countries, which is in itself an effective step towards achieving more cooperation in other areas and increasing convergence between Iran and these countries.

Diversifying cultural communication contexts: Diversifying cultural communication contexts and not relying on one or more specific fields is one of the proposed approaches for the development of cultural relations between Iran and the Persian-speaking countries. Although the elements of language, literature and civilizational heritage are the main context of cultural relations, the crystallization of these relations should be extended to the other areas such as sports, tourism, economics, etc. to increase the countries interdependence and provide indirect grounds for cultural exchanges. For this purpose, it is suggested that the content of cultural communication be included in public activities, services, economy and the like, or that various sports cups be held jointly. These activities will be complementary to cultural activities such as allocating annual cultural-literary awards or launching joint cultural, artistic and educational foundations. 

Development of digital platforms and new media in cultural communications: One of the obvious problems of the Iranian cultural agency in interaction with the Persian-speaking countries in the recent years has been ignorance towards the capacities of digital platforms and new media. This situation is such that even via a simple search on the internet, it is easy to see that the websites of Iran cultural counselors in this civilizational sphere are either essentially inactive or far away from the needs of the target community. This comes as the development of tools and the increasing agility of the communication and information environment have made the active development of digital platforms and innovation in this field as an urgent need for the cultural communication environment. Paying attention to this issue can, to some extent, eliminate the shortcomings of the modern diplomacy.

Codified planning for the improvement of the national image: In a realistic atmosphere, the improvement of Iran’s national brand in the Persian-speaking countries is one of the essential approaches for the development of cultural relations with these countries. Improving Iran’s national image at the international level (which has been distorted due to the structural pressures, sanctions, Iranophobia, psychological media operations, etc.) requires changes in foreign policy and international politics at the macro level, as well as show the positive internal economic, social and scientific developments in the world. But in relation to the Persian-speaking sphere , in particular, the expansion of political contacts and exchanges at various levels, supporting the relations and exchanges of academic, cultural and artistic delegations, paying more attention to common issues such as "Nowruz" heritage, increasing the joint scientific and academic conferences on historical and civilizational topics, production of bilingual contents (in relation to countries of common civilizational sphere) and with a dual alphabet (in relation to Persian-speaking countries), etc. can promote Iran’s national brand.

Launching joint thematic dialogues: Launching joint thematic dialogues (panels) on political issues (regional and international developments), cultural, economic, etc. at the academic and expert level (decision-making body) and its reflection in the public space of the Persian-speaking countries is one of the significant opportunities for the realization of conscious convergence regarding the issues of the new world. These talks (beyond the existing expert meetings and commissions) are one of the most appropriate platforms for trust building as well as taking same stands on common cultural, political, and even economic and security issues, the obvious outcome of which can show itself in the coordinated stands of these countries on regional and international developments or in joint efforts in international organizations.
The development of cultural relations does not necessarily occur in the cultural context alone. Just as cultural convergence affects the political and economic relations, these relations can also affect the cultural relations. So, the cultural elements cannot be chosen selectively without considering the general context of the countries' relations. The development of these relations requires adoption of some approaches in order to adequately respond to the natural conflict of interests of cooperating countries. Improving the national image and recreating the attractiveness of civilization for the cooperating parties is also an indispensable factor in the development and stability of cultural relations. On the other hand, paying attention to the requirements of modern diplomacy and innovation in the space of information and communication is also an inevitable option for the cultural agents.

Therefore, according to the solutions recommended in this report, it is necessary for us to have a realistic view of the turbulent environment of the Persian-speaking sphere and to adjust the obvious priorities of our macro-cultural policies towards these countries. Achieving this requires several approaches, such as the preference of expert views, real coordination in cultural policy-making and coherence in its implementation, as well as the generalization of instrumental rationality (along with normative rationality) in the general context of international cultural relations, especially in the Persian civilizational sphere.

Behrooz Qazal,  is Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies

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Institute for East Strategic Studies