View of Tehran from Tabiat Bridge; Foto: Hamid Sadeghi 2015
View of Tehran from Tabiat Bridge; Foto: Hamid Sadeghi 2015

After the nuclear deal – cultural rapprochement with Iran?

Interview conducted by Dorothea Grassmann

Germany views the Iran nuclear deal that was struck in Vienna in July 2015 as a major milestone in German–Iranian relations. With the subsequent lifting of sanctions against Iran in mid-January 2016, Germany and Iran are now looking for ways to stimulate cultural dialogue and exchange between the two countries. Cultural rapprochement will play a key role in improving the quality of bilateral relations in the long term.

ifa talks to Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an expert with ifa's Research Programme, about the current situation in Iran, the potential for a cultural agreement between the two countries and what is expected from Germany.

ifa: The West considers the nuclear deal to be a historic step in Iran's relations with the rest of the world. How is it viewed by cultural actors in Iran?

Fathollah-Nejad: In anticipation of the nuclear deal, many Iranian artists expressed the hope that it would lead to greater openness towards the West in terms of cultural policy. At the same time there is some disenchantment, because President Hassan Rohani has still not delivered on his promise to allow greater cultural freedoms. Artistic and journalistic liberties are still massively restricted by the authorities. Hopes that these restrictions will be relaxed are currently being dashed by official warnings of "cultural imperialism" on the part of "the West", which would undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic. On Implementation Day of the nuclear deal, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of economic and cultural "infiltration" by the West with the help of domestic actors. But the good news is that the lifting of many sanctions now paves the way for organizing and funding cultural and academic exchange programmes.

ifa: How would you describe Iranian society?

Fathollah-Nejad: It is marked by a great deal of diversity: ethnically, culturally, linguistically and in terms of religion and political ideology. Iran's modern political culture is roughly made up of three politico-ideological formations, namely that of nationalism, Islamism and socialism. They vary in principle, yet they have mutually reinforced each other. However, the Islamic Republic has de facto divided Iran's politically pluralistic society into two camps: khodi ("one of us" or people who are loyal to the system) and qeyr-e khodi ("outsiders" or people who are opponents of the system). The first camp includes all those who are loyal to the regime and benefit from the high degree of economic and political monopolization of power. This group also includes all factions of the country’s exclusively Islamist political élite, which comprises reformists, conservatives as well as fundamentalists – yet with none of them actually being homogenous. Also, some reformists associated with the Green Movement have been outlawed as "seditionists". The second camp consists of all those who are critical of the regime. They face discrimination in their access to economic and political opportunities and resources. Some of them have been forced to leave the country, constituting the majority of the 5-million-strong Iranian diaspora. The fact that Iran's politically pluralistic society has been subjected to a process of Islamization of state and society has in fact impeded the country's political, economic and cultural development. The Iranians' two-century long struggle for democracy and against authoritarian rule has not been completed yet.

ifa: What does this dichotomy mean for the work of Iranian and German cultural actors? What political conditions do we have to take into account when planning cultural activities?

Fathollah-Nejad: We have to recognize and acknowledge the pluralistic nature of Iranian society, since this is barely reflected by the Iranian state. This means that cultural exchange must not restrict itself to merely following the paths circumscribed by the state – in both Germany and Iran. Hence, those cultural activities and projects should be favoured that reflect the entire spectrum of Iranian society. The nuclear deal has not led to culture being any less politicized. This situation dictates that a great deal of prudence has to be put into cultural projects, otherwise there is the danger that those involved will face repression. It is therefore indispensable that each case is subjected to a vigorous assessment, which will of course require additional resources. But in contrast to the United States and some other European countries, Germany is viewed with much less suspicion even by Iranian hardliners. However, it is still essential to build mutual trust and respect between the German and Iranian sides. The main goal should be to bring together both societies in all their diversity.

ifa: How should we go about building this mutual trust and respect?

Fathollah-Nejad: As alluded to before, Germany is viewed with less suspicion than other Western countries because of its lack of a colonial involvement in Iran. While over the last decade some trust has whittled away as a result of Berlin having joined Washington’s coercive diplomacy against Iran, including the sanctions regime, Germany’s positive role during the nuclear negotiations was able to compensate for much of that loss. So we have a relatively good basis for building mutual trust and respect. Moreover, although most German stakeholders indeed regard Iran as one of the world’s major civilizations, they should not fall into the trap of reproducing Orientalist clichés, such as the worn-out alleged dichotomy of tradition versus modernity.

ifa: During his October 2015 visit to Iran German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced that he was keen to move forward with a cultural agreement between the two countries. What opportunities would such an agreement produce for strengthening German–Iranian cultural relations?

Fathollah-Nejad: There is the expectation by many that a cultural agreement shall provide for the legal protection for German intermediary organizations and their staff in Iran in the area of foreign cultural and educational policy. This may also apply to potential future activities conducted by German party-affiliated foundations in Iran.

ifa: Who are the main cultural actors in Iran? With which actors and groups does cultural dialogue need to be intensified?

Fathollah-Nejad: In the Islamic Republic, culture and the arts operate in a constantly negotiated sphere between state censorship and regulatory authorities and the state's cultural industry (designed to consolidate state ideology and its Islamist moral code) on the one hand and various societal groups who exert pressure "from below" towards modifying the limitations set by the former. In fact, there is some variety of voices within the state's censorship apparatus, including in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Moreover, over the past decade there has been a tendency of privatization in the cultural and arts sectors, which has also been approved by the state itself.
The priority should be to intensify cultural dialogue with those actors and groups emerging from Iran's pluralistic society. In other words, a "culture from below" emanating from civil society should be favoured over a "culture from the top" as regulated by the state.

A view of Mountains in Tehran from a Bridge in Water and Fire Park;  Foto: Hamid Sadeghi 2015

ifa: Which topics and formats would be suitable in this respect? Do we also need to focus on particular geographic areas?

Fathollah-Nejad: Iran is very centralized, so cultural life is mainly taking place in Tehran, home to around one-seventh of the population. We also have to bear in mind that there is a huge social gap between the metropolis’s rich north and poor south.
It would also be desirable to launch projects in other cities in order to make the most of Iran's cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Isfahan, for instance, is a religiously diverse city that would provide the ideal setting for inter-faith dialogue.
It makes sense to focus on topics that are relevant to the present and future of both societies. Under current circumstances we could think of projects questioning the concept of identity (in the singular) – both "German" and "Iranian" – and instead comprehending identity as an inherently multifarious phenomenon. We could also invoke the war experiences of both countries (despite the fact that they affected different generations), for example in collaboration with the Tehran Peace Museum. Another topical issue would be to investigate how both countries view and deal with refugees.
Furthermore, dialogues involving intellectuals and academic institutions on both sides on issues pertaining to philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences should be initiated and institutionalized, in the attempt to provide answers to country-specific as well as global challenges.

ifa: Are there any best-practice projects that we can refer to?

Fathollah-Nejad: Even during the so-called nuclear crisis there have been some exemplary projects that we can use as a reference. These include the Morgenland Festival Osnabrück, which overcame many difficulties in providing a showcase for a huge range of Iranian arts; a theatre project involving Iranian ensembles and the Theater an der Ruhr; and of course town-twinning initiatives such as that between Freiburg and Isfahan. In Iran there is a great deal of interest in Western forms of art and culture. Yet many promising ideas have been quashed by vetoes from state and semi-state bodies.

ifa: What is the role of the media in cultural rapprochement? What actions are still needed in this respect?

Fathollah-Nejad: New information and communication technologies have made our world increasingly connected, so the media play a unique role at many levels. So far, projects involving German and Iranian journalists and media workers offered a forum for exchanging thoughts and ideas. But it is important to prevent the exclusion of independent Iranian journalists and media workers in Iran and outside the country, as has been the case to date.

ifa: What are your conclusions?

Fathollah-Nejad: In general, when it comes to cultural projects it is important that we always keep the public sphere in mind rather than limiting ourselves to state-sanctioned spheres. For Iran’s civil society and the diaspora will be paying close attention to the nature of rapprochement between Iran and the West. We will not see any lasting, qualitative improvements in bilateral relations without the acceptance and involvement of all sectors of Iranian society. This was also the conclusion of a panel discussion organized by ifa in November 2015 in Berlin with prominent Iranian intellectuals from Tehran, New York and London.

The results of the German–Iranian Cultural Relations research programme will be published in the ifa Culture and Foreign Policy edition. Planned publication date: Spring 2016.

Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad

Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad is an Iranian–German political scientist based in Berlin. Educated at universities in France (Sciences-Po Lille), Germany (Münster) and the Netherlands (Twente), he earned his PhD in International Relations from the Department of Development Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North African Program of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). He is also a Research Fellow at the German Orient Institute and a Research Associate at the Centre of International Cooperation and Development Research (CECID) of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). In 2014/15, he has been teaching at the Freie Universität (FU) Berlin's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics – the only university course on contemporary Iran in the German capital. Before, he had taught at the University of Westminster (Visiting Lecturer in Globalization and Development with focus on the Middle East) and SOAS.
Contact: Fathollah-Nejad(at)

ifa-Research Programme

German-Iranian Cultural Relations