The Silk Road for a millennium has led travellers, traders and diplomats through the former Persian Empire and now the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was a route that brought cultures and peoples together and facilitated the exchange of values, goods and ideas. Well before Guillion coined the term in the mid 1960s, Iran was participating in public diplomacy with countries from all of Eurasia. There was constant travel between the peoples of many countries, which promoted economic, cultural and social progress of these countries, allowing the integration of different civilizations. In light of Iran’s recent period of complete international isolation, it is hard to imagine a time when Iran has played a key role in facilitating the interaction of so many cultures and bridging the gap between the East and the West.
In recent history, Western rhetoric has labeled Iran as an international pariah, unable to engage in traditional diplomacy and imposed sanctions that ensured it was unable to engage the international community. International sanctions crumbled the Iranian economy, political and diplomatic discord left the country isolated and tensions over nuclear weapons branded Iran a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’. Following the lifting of sanctions six months ago, Iran has made multiple albeit futile attempts to engage with the modern economy. Unsurprisingly, EU and US banks ‘are still terrified of working with Iran’, leaving Iran’s major banks, its politicians and its people without the promised economic boom and instead the broken word of international negotiators. Consequently, Iran is now attempting to negotiate with London banks but is still facing many challenges stemming from the deeply entrenched distrust of the Iranian government. Iran will need to return to its roots and employ soft power and public diplomacy strategies to soften perceptions of its foreign policy goals. But to top off the rollercoaster of the last few months, things just got even worse for Iran – introducing the new Prime Minister Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Following from Boris Johnson’s recent appointment as Foreign Secretary, the Independent gifted the Internet an interactive map of all the countries Boris has insulted and offended. Just for one example, in 2006 Boris wrote to the Telegraph UK arguing that: “In an ideal world, the Israelis would fly to Iran and repeat their magnificent success at Osirak in 1986, where they bombed Saddam’s nuclear capacity into a desert cradle.” Need I say more? Theresa May on the other hand clearly has ‘no sign of particular or deep interest in issues such as Iran, [or] the broader Middle East’. In 2014, when David Cameron was vigorously attempting to conclude the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Former Home Secretary May nearly broke down negotiations refusing to support the deal until 4000 Iranian’s were deported because their visa’s were overdue. Iran’s ability to positively engage in traditional diplomacy with the new UK government will be tentative at best. In the face of entering a standoffish and distrustful international community, Iran must re-pave the road to facilitate dialogue between its own civilians and the civilians of potential regional and international partners and take a strong public diplomacy approach to re-brand their country. Despite the isolation of Iran and its incompatibility with some of the major players in the international community, Iran’s foreign policy goals are still achievable if framed through a public diplomacy approach.
Iran has been presented an incredible opportunity that, if leveraged by public diplomacy, can provide a platform to engage individuals, in the UK and around the world, to shape their perception of Iran and promote Iran’s foreign policy agenda. And it is probably not what you were expecting. Tourism. When appropriately facilitated by governments, tourism harnesses one of the core tenants of public diplomacy. Tourism provides a platform that allows the fostering of the bond between people, providing the opportunity for both the traveller and the host to find commonality, familiarity and the humanity that underlies cultural differences.
There are, of course, multiple public diplomacy actions Iran could undertake. However, tourism has the most prospects for success because the structures already exist. Iran’s president recently presented plans for seven new international airports, and British Airways has announced six direct flights a day between the two countries. Culture and religion is a leitmotif in tourism; something that Iran has no shortage of. Iran’s soft power assets having been drawing travellers for centuries, however, into the 21st Century Iran must engage with public diplomacy strategies to alter the perceptions of persons from around the world. Iran has progressed in many ways over the past few decades, and exponentially so in the last one. The beautiful balance between the old Persia and new Iran must be projected to the world to encourage dialogue from people-to-people which will in turn demand governments listen to the conversations of their people. For decades, Western governments have slandered and criticised the Iranian government, creating a sense of fear surrounding this vastly misunderstood country. An increase of tourism between Iran and the UK will in turn increase demand for visas, demand for international economic cooperation and increased cultural understanding between peoples.
The Silk Road has been paved for a millennium but the path is far from well trodden. The success of ongoing dialogue between Iran and the UK through traditional diplomacy is unsteady, however, through public diplomacy Iran can rely on its soft power assets to once again lead travellers and diplomats through its country and facilitate the exchange of dialogue and ideas.