Soft power in the Middle East: The invisible skirmish

The Middle East remains of major geostrategic importance. Global powers found in the recent developments an opportunity to chart their way into the region; sending troops and reinforcements, rebuilding alliances and restoring old relations. Amidst this chaotic environment, a number of regional forces opted to adopt a different approach: soft power. It is obvious that such forces have found in soft power an efficient tool that can achieve what tanks and jets failed to do. In this article, two soft power models in the Middle East are assessed and analysed: Iran and Oman.


What is Soft Power?

Soft power refers to the ability to change what others think and do through attraction and persuasion rather than compulsion and coercion. Scholars are still divided and fail to agree on an exact definition of soft power, which remains loose and vague. Joseph Nye was the first to coin the term soft power and his definition of soft power is “getting others to want the outcomes that you want”, soft power, he said, “co-opts people rather than coerces them.”

Nye (2004, 5) finds that the crux of soft power is shaping the preferences of others. Yet, resources (either culture or laws or institutions) are significant in determining the effectiveness of soft power. The resources that produce soft power come chiefly from the values an actor (either an organization or a state), expressed in its culture (which can be transmitted through various means including commerce, tourism, personal contacts, visits, and exchanges). Throughout his book, Nye tries to demonstrate the various means of soft power, including public diplomacy, speeches, state branding, drama and TV shows, movies, education (universities, books, and scholarships), scientific centres, culture and ideas (globalization and democracy), sports and the Olympics, food, music, immigration, Nobel Prizes, the internet, video games, NGOs, brands (cars and electronics), peace keeping missions, and assistance to poor and developing countries (Nye 2004, 8-13). Nevertheless, the influence of soft power remains fragile and subject to distraction. Instability, chaos and wars are among the various conditions that undermine the effects of soft power.

Iran and Soft Power

Iran has been always branded as a hard power, especially for its record of wars (with Iraq right after the revolution), alliances with regimes and groups widely recognized as violent or supporting terrorism and its fierce rhetoric against either the West or Israel. Nevertheless, whether you like it or not, Iran is moving slowly but steadily towards an extraordinary status and role in the Middle East. It succeeded in introducing a unique pattern whereby it is adept at converting hard power and coarse policies into effective and efficient soft power tools that serve its image and reputation. Throughout the past decade, it has used soft power, hard power, at times, and both, in what Nye and other scholars labelled “smart power” (Cammack, 2008).

Ali Bakeer finds that Iran’s soft power rests on three main pillars. First and foremost are history and culture, based on a three-thousand-year old civilization that had an impact on neighbouring regions. In the same context, tourism and cultural events are other important sources and Iran is classified as one of the best ten destinations in terms of history and archaeological sites. The Persian language can be seen as a major source of attraction since it has entered into synthesis of many with many other languages including Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, Armenian, Georgian, Swahili and others. The 5 million Iranians in the Diaspora play a significant role as well in spreading Persian culture through Iranian restaurants, goods, songs and other social aspects.

The second pillar is political values. Iran introduced a unique political model that stems from its hybrid political system which adopts the concept of “religious democracy”. As a unique model of its kind and source of Iranian soft power, this model constitutes a substitute for traditional systems and is considered an appealing model for religious Muslims. The third pillar is foreign policy which is the largest source of soft power. The Iranian constitution refers clearly to the role of foreign policy, which is based on “Islamic” values, fraternal commitment to all Muslims and full protection of the oppressed around the world. These ideas, along with the Iranian propositions on revolutionary and religious principles, are considered the bases of Iran’s soft power (Bakeer 2013).

In light of the aforementioned facts, Iran, thus far, has adopted an ever-widening array of instruments to bolster its soft power and build alliances and partnerships throughout the Muslim and the Arab worlds. Shiism has become a palpable policy and Iran has been targeting Shiites in many countries around the world through media campaigns, establishing cultural and religious centres, financially supporting Shiite minorities and, recently, politically and militarily assisting Shiite communities with the aim of strengthening their role and influence within their societies (for example Huthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon).


This article was written by Fadi Elhusseini for Iran Review on July 08,2016. Fadi Elhusseini is Ph.D., Political Counselor & An Advisory Board Member of the New Arab Foundation.