Interplay of Persian and Islamic identities in Iranian diplomacy
While the world’s attention has been focused on the nuclear crisis in Japan and the ongoing political turmoil in the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, Iran has been engaged in summit diplomacy in recent days, hosting five heads of state and several other high-level political officials from regional countries, and commemorating Nowruz, the ancient cultural tradition marking the start of the Persian new year synchronizing with the beginning of spring. The hosting of this event by Iran is in large part thought to send the unmistakable message to the world that, despite the claim of its adversaries to the contrary, Iran is too important and influential a nation to be isolated, at least in its own region. Regardless of its actual and symbolic significance to politicians, the hosting of the Nowruz international festival in Tehran and the political incidents surrounding it provide insights into how the Islamic and Persian elements of the Iranian national identity interact to influence its foreign policy.
By now, the world is too familiar with the Islamic or ideological sources of Iran’s foreign policy; yet scant attention is paid to how the Persian element of Iran’s national identity plays out in its diplomacy. The Persian element of Iran’s national identity has for a long time influenced Iran’s relations with its Muslim – especially Arab — neighbors, by defining it as ‘the other’ at different points in its history. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which brought political independence to the Central Asian and South Caucasus republics, opened up new avenues through which the Persian element of Iran’s national identity could influence its foreign policy alongside its Islamic component.
The fact that most of the newly-independent countries of the region belonged to the Iranian civilization zone and shared historical and cultural ties with Iran meant that the Persian element of Iran’s national identity could serve as a gateway for Iran’s influence in these countries. Common cultural and literary heritage could work as a bridge across political boundaries between Iran and these nations. Just to name a few, the Persian literary masterpieces of Roudaki, Ferdowsi, Roumi, Hafez and Saadi, some of which were produced over a millennium ago, are still recited and cherished by the Persian-speaking peoples across Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and some other parts of the Central Asia. To indicate the importance of this region also to ‘the self’ of Iran, it helps to note that the national identity of Iran would miss important elements without including the historical cultural heritage of Iran which rests in the historical cities and regions of Bukhara, Samarqand, Khojand, Merv, Balkh, Herat and their like, all of which are located outside the borders of the contemporary Iran.
Common cultural heritage has endowed Iran with a political capital which can be used for diplomacy purposes. The successful experience of Iran in mediating a peace accord, along with Russia, between the Tajik warring parties in the mid0-1990s, which brought an end to the civil war in that Persian-speaking nation through a power-sharing arrangement, bears witness to how Persian cultural elements could serve Iran’s foreign diplomacy.
However, despite some isolated cases of its successful application, the Persian element of Iran’s national identity has been underutilized in its foreign diplomacy. The main reason for this has been the absence of consensus among Iranian political and religious elites on how different components of the Iranian national identity should be balanced and factored in defining Iran’s foreign policy. There is a perception among some segments of the conservative Iranian elites that the Persian and Islamic elements of Iran’s national identity are incompatible and that promoting the pre-Islamic Persian culture would undermine the Islamic component of Iran’s national identity.
The opposition to the promotion of the Persian component of Iran’s national identity is not purely ideological, and is also in large part driven by power politics considerations. There is a concern among some conservative political groups that any emphasis on the Persian element of the Iranian national identity in both domestic politics and foreign policy would bolster the position of secular nationalist political forces at the expense of Islamist forces in the Iranian politics. This concern was at its peak in the first few years of the post-revolutionary politics in Iran, when Islamist political forces were embroiled in an intense power struggle with liberal nationalist political forces.
The recent political reactions by various hard-line political and religious figures to the planned international commemoration of Nowruz in Tehran is yet further evidence pointing to the absence of a political consensus among Iranian political elites on the role of Persian identity in Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy, and show how internal power struggle has hampered Iran’s efforts in utilizing its Persian identity to advance its national interests and foreign policy goals.
A look at the statements of various political and religious officials who took an opposing position on the holding of the recent international Nowruz event in Tehran shows that several motives were at play. Some justified their opposition to the event by claiming that there is an inherent conflict between the promotion of Persian culture and Islamic identity of Iran, while a larger number of them argued that the holding of the event is not politically expedient at this juncture, given the political developments in the Arab world. Not lost in the various reasons mentioned for opposition to the event was the fact that a controversial political figure namely Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is a close aide to President Ahmadinejad, was behind organizing the event. This makes particular sense knowing that Mashaei has stirred the wrath of the conservative political and religious officials by making nationalistic statements in recent years.
The absence of political consensus among Iranian elites on the extent to which the Persian component of Iran’s national identity should be incorporated in Iran’s foreign diplomacy, either on ideological or practical grounds, has led to the underutilization of Iran’s potentials in foreign relations with regional countries. Stressing only the Islamic element of Iran’s national identity in situations where Iran’s national interests could be better served by promoting its Persian identity has cost Iran opportunities in its foreign relations. Resistance to Iran’s influence in some of the former Soviet republics in the Central Asia and the Caucasus can in large part be attributed to the prevalence of this approach to Iran’s foreign policy. Given that most of the secular post-Soviet states of the region deal with Islamist opposition forces, it comes as no surprise that an unbalanced emphasis on Iran’s Islamic identity at the expense of its Persian identity in foreign policy has presented Iran as a threat to some of these states.
The international celebration of Nowruz in Tehran, which also follows its recognition by the United Nations as an international day last year, is a step toward redressing the past shortcomings and utilizing Iran’s potentials in foreign diplomacy. Persian culture, including Nowruz, is an essential and undeniable element of Iran’s national identity, along with its Islamic element, which has survived through millennia against all odds. Notwithstanding domestic opposition by some conservative political circles, it is the belief of a large segment of the Iranian political elites that capitalizing on this potential in foreign diplomacy will serve Iran’s national interests in the region and beyond, a fact which explains why Iran took the initiative along with some other countries at the UN General Assembly in late 2009 to give official international recognition to Nowruz.