Relations between Iran and the Arab World went through numerous ups and downs in the course of the 20thcentury. However, with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, they took a turn for the worse, as the Arab World, with few exceptions, has to the point of exaggeration been considering Iran and its ideology to be an existential threat. In the past few years, Tehran has gradually redefined its relations with some Arab countries, reinforcing its engagement with their governments and people concurrently. Nevertheless, relations between Iran and the Arab World in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in particular, an organisation that emerged out of perceived threats from post-revolutionary Iran, remain fraught with tension and distrust.
Parallel to four decades of developments in Iranian-Arab relations, the concept of diplomacy has also evolved, leading to the rise of public diplomacy. Obviously, public diplomacy has not replaced official diplomacy and will never do so. Rather, public diplomacy in its various forms complements state-oriented official diplomacy. When state-to-state diplomacy faces hurdles and fails to perform its functions, public diplomacy with its less controversial and more durable features could in the long run possibly pave a new way forward for official diplomacy.
What generally exists between Iran and the Arab World is traditional government-led diplomacy that, as history suggests, has failed to serve its conventional functions, namely the establishment and improvement of diplomatic relations on the one hand and peaceful settlement of conflicts on the other. Even now as Iran and Saudi Arabia have reportedly been resuming rounds of talks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, they are seemingly focusing on specific security issues instead of attempting to find ways to improve diplomatic ties in general.
Diplomatic relations between Iran and the Arab countries generally lack public diplomacy tools as their people are rarely in contact with each other and there is thus very little mutual understanding between them.
Since the prospect of direct people-to-people engagement under the auspices of the governments in Iran and the Arab World is far from promising, European states and Germany in particular given its favourable status at least among Iranians have a prime opportunity to take the lead in bringing Iran and the Arab nations closer. But how?
According to several opinion polls commissioned by the Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland (CISSM) during the past 8 years , Germany was the country viewed most favourably of the Western states. Germany’s popularity in Iran can be explained, for example, by the lack of colonial footprints by Germany in Iran, as well as German investment in pre-revolutionary Iran’s critical infrastructure sectors.
This enduring positive image needs to be considered as an asset for the German Government to launch different initiatives designed to convince the Iranian and Arab leaders to restore regional dialogue and then serve as mediator to settle their differences. However, since recent developments suggest that the capitals in the region are not yet fully prepared to restore diplomatic relations, European capitals in general and Berlin in particular can tap public diplomacy and act as a facilitator for people-to-people connections, particularly among the elites of Iran and the Arab world.
People in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region deserve peaceful coexistence with a bright future. While statesmen and stateswomen in the Middle East and Persian Gulf have so far failed to fully concentrate on their differences via the available state-controlled diplomatic tools, no one must give up and adapt to the current circumstances. I believe all good forces in the region and beyond should think how peace is achievable through other tools.
One example that needs to be seriously considered is Germany launching a programme to bring junior scientists from Iran and the GCC countries together in Berlin to give them a unique opportunity to see German advancements in the specific field of science at first hand and to pave the way for intensive personal engagement with each other. Irrespective of who should run this initiative and how, the programme – which would ideally be organised annually or semi-annually – would help the participating scholars from Iran and the Arab World to explore a certain scientific topic under the auspices of Germany’s scientific excellence and, just as important, to enter into a dialogue on their cultures, traditions and even culinary skills of which Iranians and Arabs are so proud.
Interaction between the Iranian and Arab elites on science and daily life could be a major product of the science diplomacy under Germany’s leadership. This would not only convince the elites to focus on and invest in their similarities but would probably also be ramified and in turn have a positive impact on scientific communities in the Arab World, particularly the GCC, and Iran alike.
In addition to the benefits this programme may have for the nations in the Persian Gulf region, it would give Germany a leading role in the world of science diplomacy, as the Federal Foreign Office’s newly released Strategy Paper “Science Diplomacy” aspires to achieve.  Even more importantly, it would lay the groundwork for Berlin to dive more into the complex regional dynamics with the ultimate aim of fully restoring dialogue between the conflicting sides.
However, it would be naive to think that such a programme would be easy to accomplish. Indeed, any public diplomacy architecture demands a long-term strategy and its architect needs to be aware that a minor error or miscalculation can scupper any public diplomacy measure. More specifically, as the differences between the conflicting sides in the region are deep-rooted, it is hard to believe that public diplomacy-led initiatives alone, whether in the short or in the long term, could end up overcoming differences between the region’s nations or even governments. Public diplomacy complements official state-level diplomacy and can only ever be one component of many. One should neither underestimate nor overestimate the importance and functions of public diplomacy and its manifestations such as science diplomacy when addressing challenges related to the complex politics in an already volatile region. Public diplomacy can be effective when used at the right time and in the right place.
There are a number of programmes in place run by either the Federal Government or the German private sector focusing on establishing dialogue between people from all walks of life in Iran and the Arab World. What would lead to success and increase Germany’s influence regarding regional developments is consistency and vigorous policy planning with the whole-of-government approach and setting tangible outcomes for the long run.
The frosty relationship between Iran and most Arab countries and the GCC in particular has long required benign stakeholders from inside and outside the region to play a role in defusing tension. Since the conflicting states in the Persian Gulf region are seemingly reluctant to work on their differences – to the detriment of their own people –, a bottom-up approach needs to be generated by internal and external forces in order to link and engage people and elites of the respective communities. Germany enjoys unique status in starting the ball rolling by bringing its scientific excellence and overall reputation to the core of its agenda for the wider Middle East.
I have long focused on the role of science diplomacy on the challenges the region is facing and I am optimistic that this diplomatic instrument has answer(s) for the regional challenges. Although, as explained, neither science diplomacy apparatuses nor any other public diplomacy tools are capable to fully settling long standing (high-politics) challenges in any region, they are helpful in closing the region’s nations and elites within them together to think and act collectively for struggles their own region is facing. I tried to explore one aspect of the science diplomacy’s role in the region with the involvement of Germany. You can focus its role from different aspects for different regions. What is vital is to not sit idly and see how our shared future remains less prosperous and more uncertain.
Disclaimer: This article represents the opinion of the author, in his personal capacity, not that of the Government in Iran.
More information on the topic (URL):
 To find out more about the results of the surveys see: https://cissm.umd.edu/research-impact/publications/iranian-public-opinion-start-biden-administration-report
 You can consult the Federal Foreign Office Science Diplomacy Strategy at: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/themen/kulturdialog/science-universities/2209874
About the author:
Mahmoud Javadi is a research fellow at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), affiliated with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is also active in state-funded think-tanks across the country.
Published on September 16, 2021.