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Reviewed by:
  • The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East by Nadia von Maltzahn, and: Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East by Simon Mabon
  • Fred H. Lawson (bio)
The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East, by Nadia von Maltzahn. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 272pages. $90.
Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East, by Simon Mabon. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 298pages. $95.

Studies of Middle Eastern diplomacy focus almost exclusively on military force and economic leverage, aspects of world politics that Joseph Nye calls “hard power.” Cultural dimensions of inter-state interaction, which Nye labels “soft power,” remain largely unexplored, with the notable exception of Cairo’s use of Sawt al-‘Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio broadcasts as an instrument of Egyptian hegemony in regional affairs during the 1950s. It is therefore exciting to have two complementary analyses of soft power in the contemporary Middle East, one explicating the ways in which cultural activities enhance inter-state cooperation and the other how they can exacerbate inter-state conflict.

In The Syria-Iran Axis, Nadia von Maltzahn surveys government-sponsored cultural connections between Iran and Syria, highlighting the years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She shows that the authorities in Tehran have taken steps to heighten awareness of and appreciation for Persian language and [End Page 336] literature, as well as the Islamic Republic’s official views on religious doctrine and practice, among Syria’s populace in general, and university students in particular. This campaign requires a good deal of finesse, since disseminating notions of Shi‘i Islam could well be considered a sectarian project that favors Syria’s ‘Alawi community. The fact that the only provincial branch of the Damascus-based Iranian Cultural Center is located in Latakia underscores the basic problem.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic’s campaign to promote Persian culture tends to consist of initiatives that benefit Shi‘a more than Sunnis, most notably the campaign to rehabilitate Shi‘i pilgrimage sites all across Syria. The shrines of Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Ruqayya in Damascus have received the most lavish attention, although other tombs and commemorative mosques in ‘Adra, Aleppo, and Raqqa became important destinations for visiting Shi‘a from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon during the opening decade of the 21st century as well. Foreign visitors make up the primary constituency for the three-month book fair organized by the Iranian Cultural Center outside the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab every summer (p. 108). How such activities played among Syria’s Sunni citizens is left unaddressed, although von Maltzahn notes that the Cultural Center makes sure to cultivate good will among prominent Sunni scholars closely tied to the Ba‘th regime (pp. 115–16).

Damascus’s attempts to use cultural diplomacy to buttress Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran seem clumsy by comparison. Successive heads of the Syrian Arab Cultural Center in Tehran speak only Arabic and have no background — and little interest — in literature, fine arts, or religion (pp. 134–35). Lectures and exhibitions hosted by the Center deal primarily with the struggle against Zionism and imperialism, and elicit no enthusiasm from Iranian intellectuals (p. 137). “The Syrians,” von Maltzahn concludes, “opened their cultural centre in Tehran more for symbolic reasons than out of a true desire to build bridges between the Syrian and Iranian peoples” (p. 210). One starts to wonder whether gathering material on the cultural dimensions of Iranian-Syrian relations is worth the trouble.

Soft power is conceived somewhat differently in Simon Mabon’s analysis of post-1979 relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is still contrasted to the hard power of military coercion and economic bargaining, what Mabon calls “geopolitics,” but is associated with dynamics of communal identity and state-building, rather than policies designed to increase cross-cultural understanding and religious tourism. For Mabon, the exercise of soft power entails a cluster of dilemmas, all of them analogous to the security dilemma that drives inter-state interaction under conditions of anarchy. What precisely constitutes these overlapping dilemmas is a little hard to figure out; the only two that are...


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