Title’public diplomacy’ and Iranian regime

State Propaganda: A Blunt Knife?

8 Apr 2010

■ Mehdi Khalaji
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The political discourse of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been full of bluff, threats and provocative language. Without any real diplomacy and effective and active relations, this kind of language as well as the conduct of state officials has often been used as a foreign policy tool. The continuous denial of the Holocaust and threats towards the West are part of this propaganda. Iran has used these threats as a tool for political immunity and for fulfilling its ends in the Middle East region. Whenever there is less real diplomacy, there is more bitter propaganda. Precisely because of this lack of diplomatic relations, no country is more under siege in the propaganda of the Islamic regime than America.

In the long run, however, propaganda cannot be an alternative for diplomacy. State propaganda is usually an addendum to diplomacy and not its main principle. The real decisive factor in relations between states has always been diplomacy, not the kind of propaganda a country uses to influence and engage the public. Iran’s relations with Russia and China are an example. Neither of these two countries have any real propaganda for Iran. The Iranian youth have always favored the West to Russia and China, but the very deep relation Iran has with these countries has brought their interests together. On the other hand, the Islamic regime’s propaganda against the US has not been effective on a national level: Iranian people are often said to be the most ‘Americaphile’ of all nations in the Middle East, after Israel.

Public Diplomacy: an Old ‘Novelty’

In a meeting with Iranian diplomats on March 3rd, 2010, Supreme Leader ayatollah Khamenei talked about “powerful diplomacy” and added: “Public diplomacy is a novelty of the Islamic Republic and should be better acknowledged.”
“Public diplomacy” instead of “state propaganda” is a phrase that has been adopted by some of Iran’s politicians and government-affiliated institutes. As the phrase came to be used more often, there was also the claim that “public diplomacy” was one the inventions of ayatollah Khomeini. Hamid Molana, an advisor to president Ahmadinejad in US affairs, said: ”Our best diplomats, who have excelled in public diplomacy, are the Supreme Leader and Mr. President.’’ He added that ”diplomacy in the West is still the Cold War.” It is not really clear how someone like Mr. Molana, who thinks “public diplomacy” is one of ayatollah Khomeini’s inventions, understands the concept. However, it is very unlikely that those who are making such claims about the origins of the phrase are not aware of its American origins in the 1960s – years before the Islamic Revolution.

It seems such claims are in fact themselves part of the Islamic regime’s “public diplomacy.” The Islamic Republic is built on a limited and dogmatic ideology, which, like those adhering to it, tries to prove it is the source of all good, whereas all that is bad stems from its enemies. If “public diplomacy” is indeed a good thing, it cannot possibly be the result of someone else’s mind, especially not an American one, and it definitely must have its roots in Islamic traditions or in the words or conduct of the leaders of the Islamic regime. In such an ideology, being “native” is being right and true.

In the same speech about powerful diplomacy, ayatollah Khamenei pointed out “some misconceptions in adapting and using Western concepts, ways and manners, in order to get closer to them” and added: “These people thought that by repeating Western concepts and surrendering to them, we would gain more respect. However, the Western concepts and ideas are old, dating back to two hundred years ago, whereas the words and politics of the Islamic Republic are new and influential.’’

Making such a claim puts ayatollah Khamenei in a difficult position. First, ideas such as constitution, referendum, parliament, judiciary and presidency all have European origins. Second, an old idea is not an extinct one; religions and their practitioners cannot possibly make such a claim. Third, are not the old Islamic traditions and religious principles the basis of the Islamic regime’s authority and policy? How can such principles be “new”? How can the Islamic regime proudly affiliate itself with Islam and then invite people to practice rules from fourteen hundred years ago?

This obsession with the “originality” of ideas and concepts is yet more proof of the regime’s rigid ideology. In open and critical ideologies, the origin of a thought is never a criterion for judging its truth or usefulness. Dogmatic ideologies, with their emphasis on “originality”, are heading for their own demise.

American Exceptionalism Turned Upside Down

If we look at the same speech, we might possibly understand this passion for originality. Iran’s Supreme Leader is proud that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is an “anti-hegemonic-system” and stresses that “true execution of these kinds of anti-hegemonic-system policies belongs only to the Islamic Republic.’’ In his opinion, “a condition for fully executing this policy is to be firm about the principals of the Revolution and Islamic law (Sharia) and not to be shy about them.”
In the language of Iranian leaders, the “anti-hegemonic system” policy, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, equals an anti-American policy. Among the left-wing activists and so-called “post-colonialists”, there are many people who share ayatollah Khamenei’s understanding of the world hegemonic system. Mr. Khamenei, like other state officials, has always talked about “the Western capitalist system,” “liberal democracy” or the “global capitalist octopus,” but in doing so, he has overlooked great economic and political powers such as China, Japan, Russia and even Europe.
What is interesting in this perception of world affairs is that it considers the US to be the most important country in the world in determining global politics, economy and culture. Ayatollah Khamenei may be dissatisfied with why this is the case but does not have any doubts about whether the US is actually the most important country.

As Iran’s leaders see it, the formation of the Islamic Republic was the first step in gaining dominance of the entire world

Ayatollah Khamenei says the Islamic Republic is striving for a “new and just world order”
Khamenei’s views are “American exceptionalist” in reverse. In American exceptionalism, a theory whose roots are attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), America, as the first modern democracy, is the most important country in the world. It has duties and responsibilities when it comes to global affairs. In some Christian fundamentalist versions of this kind of exceptionalism, America is chosen by God and has a religious mission to intervene in international affairs and direct the world towards democracy. Iranian leaders do not doubt about the truth of this matter but feel that it is not America but Iran that should be taking on this role. Ayatollah Khamenei clearly thinks that the Islamic Republic is following a divine pattern and that, at the end of history, the victory of the Islamic Regime will be inevitable.

As Iran’s leaders see it, the formation of the Islamic Republic was the first step in gaining dominance of the entire world. Ayatollah Khamenei says the Islamic Republic is striving for a “new and just world order” and hopes to “raise the flag of justice, and gather many under it.” In this respect, the two main goals would be ”to create and construct an example of a just state’’ and “to show and present it to the world’’ (Dec. 30th, 2009). Mr. Ahmadinejad also says that “the final point of our diplomacy is based on creating a global state … and our foreign policy should move in such a way that all humanity will come under divine power.’’ He adds that “the creation of the world without a final global state is meaningless, and all the prophets have pointed out the final revolution and state. Today, we are in the midst of that final revolution.’’ After the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini also talked about exporting it.
The Islamic Regime, just like other totalitarian states in the 20th century ‒ think of the communist Soviet Union and Germany’s Nazi Regime ‒ has a world vision. In the words of Iranian leaders, the real competitor of the Islamic Republic is the US itself. In a meeting with the leaders of some Palestinian armed groups, Mr. Khamenei said that “we are more powerful than the US’’ and “Israel will be annihilated.” He talks as if the immediate result of Israel’s demise or of Iran being more powerful than America is that Iran will gain control over the world. No wonder he is designated “the leader of all Muslims in the world’’ in the state media. He thinks of Iran as the substitute for the USSR during the Cold War and tries to learn lessons from the fallen Eastern bloc in defeating America. In his view, it was not the economy or dictatorship that brought about the demise of the communist empire but the Cold War that America waged against it.
In fact, the Iranian leaders’ discovery of the “public diplomacy” phenomenon and its importance also has its roots in their competition with the US. The amateurish and ludicrous use of the phrase is just another propaganda tool against America. In truth, they do not really need to use the phrase, neither in words nor in actions. What they are looking for in this new-found expression is their own old ways of disseminating state propaganda.
To understand what the Western notion of public diplomacy really is, we need to look at all the books and essays published about the subject in America. The Iranian government’s interpretation of propaganda, however, is something quite different. The Iranian state has made a great mistake in assuming that propaganda could even partly substitute diplomacy. The Iranian regime’s propaganda is most successful in dictator-led countries in the Arab world, especially among groups that have set their goals on destroying Israel and religious competitors. It has little effect in Iran and almost none in the West.
There are overtones of Intelligence and military force in Iranian government propaganda, and even issues of culture and diplomacy are dealt with by the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. In such a mindset, the media, art, literature, universities, the educational system, religious hawzahs, etc., are all propaganda tools. This makes independent media, cultural work, universities , etc meaningless. To be independent of the state is to serve the enemy: “being the infantry in the West’s soft war against the Islamic Republic.’’ Without cultural and social freedom, it is very difficult to be publicly influential. This is why the regime has always added suppression to its governmental propaganda within its borders and terror outside them.
On the other hand, the Islamic Regime has an instrumentalist view on just about anything. New technology is just another tool serving the old propaganda techniques. However, modern technology has not had a substantial effect on the content and the medium of the propaganda, at least not noticeably. Look at the blogs and websites associated with the government, and the point is proven. There is an uncompromising fight against the outside world. Sometimes this aggression takes really shameless forms. The difference between lying and committing a shameless act is that a lie is something the speaker does not believe in but hopes the audience does; a shameless speech is something the speaker knows is wrong; he even knows that the audience will not believe it, but says it anyway because to keep it to himself would be to accept a fact that is not of great advantage to him.
Dogmatic ideologies are full of extremism, bragging and paradoxes. The fate of public diplomacy in Iran is yet another example of such kinds of extremisms. No state should be blamed for investing money and resources in state propaganda. If that government is democratic, its propaganda will be beneficial to its national interests. However, propaganda in a tyrannical state will only enforce radicalism and other crude political acts.
Keywords: America, Ahmadinejad, Public, Iran, Propaganda, Khamenei, Diplomacy

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