While Iran’s military involvement in regional conflicts and support for militant groups often make headlines, Tehran’s sophisticated soft power strategies aimed at promoting their ideological and political goals in the region are largely overlooked. However, Iran’s soft power opportunities are significant and should not be overlooked. Indeed, Iran has virtually super-power soft-power status in the region. Several millennia – not centuries – have given Iran and Iranians deep roots which a mere 2 week, or 2 month, or 2 year or multi-decade military or intelligence campaign cannot dislodge or defeat.
The problem is that most western analysts are neither well-traveled, nor well educated on the subtleties of soft power. You must be on the ground, and on the ground for a long time in different places to really understand what the nature of the soft power is, and what its implications might be.
Soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction which often leads to acquiescence. “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” Often overlooked however, is that soft power enables different parts of populations to be attracted or repelled by different things, ideas, images, or prospects. Exercising soft power is generally low cost i.e. does not require hard military assets and can be far more effective in providing desired outcomes than hard – hot – wars.
On the surface Iran has three key elements of Iran’s soft power. Iranian Culture, Persian Language and Shia Islam. These are three dominant forces.
Iranian culture is deep rooted regionally. Key elements of Iranian culture – holidays like No-ruz, Iranian cuisine, Iranian celebrations like weddings, etc. prevail in something like in at least 11 countries regionally. Many of these countries do not speak Persian, but they celebrate No-ruz! It’s a national holiday.
And along with Persian culture, the Persian Language (Farsi) is spoken by 150 million people in at least 6 countries.
Not to be forgotten, Iran’s version of Islam – Shia Islam – is practiced by 200 million people in the region (many of whom do not speak Persian or celebrate Iranian Holidays).
But now there are many other components of Iranian soft power that the ‘regime’ in Tehran is implementing. These too, should not be overlooked or minimized.
Recently, Iran has established branches of Islamic Azad Universities in major Syrian and Iraqi cities and the expansion of its main branch in Lebanon. This is yet, another example of how Tehran uses soft power tools to expand its sphere of influence across the region. Moreover, Iran’s educational, cultural and charitable organizations abroad also complement the country’s hard power strategies and at times provide a civilian cover for the Revolutionary Guards operatives to carry out subversive activities at the expense of regional stability.
The expansion of the Islamic Azad University branches abroad is part of Iran’s sophisticated soft power strategy that promotes the Islamic Republic’s ideological and political goals. Such soft power tools also complement Iran’s hard power strategies as Tehran uses educational, charitable and cultural organizations to indoctrinate young Shiites in the region and potentially recruit them for Iran’s regional struggle for power and dominance.
As the United States targets the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran is using soft-power tactics to combat U.S. influence and win over the minds of the people. Since the early 1990s, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s Afghanistan arm has been expanding its budget and reaching more and more Afghans, which poses a growing threat to U.S. interests. After the ouster of the Taliban, the Iranian government immediately set the stage for a soft-power offensive in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, focuses its assistance on orphans, the physically disabled, and the elderly. In addition, it offers computer classes and distributes food aid, blankets and fuel, interest-free loans, and marriage assistance to destitute young people. The organization also provides medical services through a Kabul hospital, which has a daily capacity of two hundred patients and sends some patients to Iran for further treatment. The committee also provides free services to the general public to commemorate special days such as the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the anniversary of the death of Khomeini, and Ramadan. At present, nearly thirty-two thousand Afghans from over seven thousand families are enrolled in the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s aid and educational programs.
The U.S. military is well prepared to counter hard-power threats, but nowhere in the White House’s Afghanistan strategy does the administration spell out how to counter the Iran’s considerable soft-power challenge. Iran is exploiting a variety of soft-power tools to further the Iranian government’s political and ideological agenda and undermine U.S. interests in the region very successfully.
Realistically, Iran’s regional influence can not be undermined or diminished. And, bottom-line, it would be sensible to reconsider U.S. belligerency, and the polarization created with respect to Iran and Iranians. The White House needs to be more respectful of Iran and Iranians. It does not fully understand who they are dealing with and what the consequences of their actions might be – both in the short and long-term.
In fact, I would argue the U.S. would be shrewd to use its own soft power in dealing with Iran – instead of sending aircraft carriers to the region. Waving a stick at Iran and Iranians, simply wont work. Iranians are a proud and brave nation and will not be threatened into submission by anyone – either with arms or money. Iran has deep roots and can leverage a lot to counter any threat.
Indeed, a quick analysis of U.S. involvement in Iraq illustrates how despite overwhelming fire power, it was Iran and its soft power assets in Iraq that ultimately led to Iran’s dominance in Iraq – not the U.S.!