Despite historical differences, Tehran can reduce the level of tensions with Arab countries if it taps into public diplomacy.
Arab states held hostile relations with Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution when the Pahlavi dynasty ruled the country, mainly due to the Pahlavis’ support for Israel. In retaliation, Arab leaders backed the opposition to the Shah’s regime. Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Palestinian groups were among the staunchest opponents of Iran. Among Arab countries, Algeria was the only one taking cautious steps to approach Iran. Algiers’ efforts culminated in the 1975 Accord between the Shah and Saddam Hussein that ended decades of territorial dispute between the two neighbours. Following the death of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat also made a turn in Cairo’s relations with Tehran and established close ties.
Iran’s relations with the Arab World have been complicated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, entangled with political and security concerns. The Islamic Awakening [i.e. the Arab Spring], the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West and the most recent development, the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr, have made the relations more complicated than ever, making the search for a solution a taxing effort.
Following the suspicious occupation of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and Saudi forces' attackon Iran’s embassy in Yemen, relations have reached an ebb, leading to severance of ties by Arab countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia. A set of solutions can however help Iranian officials to mitigate the crisis:
One. The first step to take is to hold trials for those involved in the attack on the Saudi embassy and publicly announce the final verdict. The global public opinion and the international community should know that the incident was not backed by the government. Moreover, more serious efforts are needed to pursue the case of Riyadh’s attack on the Iranian Embassy in Sana'a, an intentional move that has been definitely backed by the Saudi government.
Two. The case of Sheikh Nimr’s execution and oppression of the Shia community should be pursued through international courts and human rights activities, along with a public media campaign.
Three. A more efficient measure to dispel misunderstandings between Iran and the Arab World, however, is to embark upon a platform of public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and dialogue. Cultural exchanges are less susceptible to political and security concerns. A major cause of current tensions is that few in Iran and the Arab World are seriously engaged in clearing up misunderstandings. Knowing how extremism and takfiri movements have gained momentum in the Arab World, one can guess how this lack of efforts has reinforced the wall of mistrust.
Intercultural exchanges can efficiently dispel misunderstandings between Iran and other countries. The government should actively engage in cultural diplomacy and tap into cultural capacities. Initiatives such as the First Symposium of Intercultural Dialogue between Iranian and Arab Intellectuals that will be hosted by the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization can be helpful in reducing tensions.
* This piece was originally published in Tabnak, affiliated with former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."