Nadia von Maltzahn on Syrian-Iranian Cultural DiplomacySeptember 23, 2013
Nadia von Maltzahn’s, The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East is one of the more unexpected contributions to the literature of public diplomacy on several grounds. Firstly, there are few bilateral studies of public engagement, secondly, while there are many studies of public engagement by authoritarian regimes I can’t think of another one where the target is another authoritarian regime and thirdly, it’s about Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. Fourthly, this is a bilateral study where the author knows both the languages involved and has been able to get a degree of cooperation from people involved.
The study traces the development of cultural relations activities between the two countries since the independence of Syria after the Second World War up until the outbreak of the current conflict in 2011. Although Iran and Syria concluded a friendship treaty in the 1950s and a cultural agreement in the 1970s relations between the two were a low priority. After the Iranian revolution geopolitical interests – including antagonism to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel and the US brought the two countries together creating a relationship that has endured despite differences over Lebanon and Syria’s participation in the US led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991. At its heart this is a relationship driven by politics and cultural relations work is there to support the diplomatic relationship.
As von Maltzahn shows there’s been a distinct imbalance in the relationship it’s Iran who’s been much more committed to cultural work. Iran has a distinctive language and culture as well as its revolutionary tradition. On the other hand Syria prides itself on its commitment to Arab unity which makes a claim of cultural distinctiveness problematic, how it distinguishes itself is through its hardline rejectionist stance. The result is that Iran has spent heavily on a cultural centre in Damascus plus regional activities. The instruments at work are familiar; language courses, magazines, lectures, support for the teaching of Persian in Syrian universities, film festivals, scholarships and so on. The Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus opened its doors in 1983, Syria did not reciprocate until 2005 and on a much smaller scale. While Iran sees foreign public engagement as a routine part of its statecraft the Syrian Centre in Tehran is more of a one off – ironically, because of the state of relations between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, it had the potential to become a more significant part of the Iranian cultural scene than the Syrians perhaps realised.
As well as looking at the cultural centres von Maltzahn includes a chapter devoted to the experiences of students from the two countries and one on Iranian religious tourism in Syria. As with other tourists Iran’s move within predictable patterns and don’t engage much with Syrians beyond that. Rather than increasing Syrian understanding of Iran most of the tourists are relatively poor and rural and may have a negative impact on perceptions in Syria.
From the point of view of scholars of public diplomacy this will seem like a rather exotic study but the practices of cultural relations work will seem very familiar. Highly recommended.