Abouzar Ebrahimi Torkaman, Head of Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), sat down with IRAS for an interview about Iran’s cultural diplomacy in Central Asia and Caucasus and the cultural ties forged in recent years. The following is a condensed version of the interview.
As some believe that one of the main obstacles in front of Iran's cultural diplomacy in Central Asia was Russia, does the current Iran-Russia ties help Iran's diplomacy in the region?
Russia has gone through several periods since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We cannot define all periods [within the framework of] a certain weight. In the early days, the Soviet Union was physically disintegrated, but not in terms of habits, behaviors and traditional issues. Giving an example, a reporter asks a person once addicted to drugs whether he is still addicted. Though he has given up using drugs, he replies: “I am an addict who does not use drugs.” This means that his mind is still involved in the addiction, though, he does not use drugs. It is true that the Soviet Union disintegrated, but still the separated countries shared everything with the Soviet Union. For example, the border guards of Turkmenistan and/or some other countries were the Soviet subjects. Or at the early days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military service was done under the Soviet system. The disintegration had not yet happened in all stages.
In the second decade, the situation somehow improved. In this regard, the distance [between the countries and their distinguishing features] started to become clear, and their independence was achieved. However, Russia still considered them as its near abroad forces. They were separated from Russia, but Russia reserved for itself the right to be superior, and played the role of the big brother for them. But today the story has changed, and Russia has come to know that due to the presence of a series of components, the Central Asia has the potential to become a restive region. We believe that Afghanistan is also a part of Central Asia, and the unrest has shown itself in this country. Like the Andijan incident in Uzbekistan, a similar incident is likely to happen in Tajikistan and some other countries. This can be prevented with the help of Iran. Iran served as a peace guarantor in the Tajikistan peace process. Russia also played the role of a peace guarantor. Therefore, it can exert influence in this country. I believe that if not thinking like this, Russia should come to the conclusion that the Iranian cultural presence and diplomacy can create a sort of moderation and balance in Central Asia.”
Given your precious knowledge on the Russian society, what negative views about Iran exist among the Russians?
I think the Russian people have a positive, not a negative, view on Iran. But, at the same time, they do not have enough knowledge of Iran. Those who know Iran, will be interested in Iran, and come to this country as tourists. But Iranian tourist centers should deal with this issue actively. There are two discussions raised in tourism: one is the host, and the other is the subject. The subject is the tourist, and Iran serves as the host who should provide [proper] conditions and [show its] capabilities. Tourists should provide their conditions as well. Therefore, connecting links should be established. I think it is not difficult to encourage tourism between Russia and Iran, but this has been neglected.”
With respect to recent tourism facilities between Iran and Russia, to what extent such facilities are used for our cultural diplomacy? What ICRO plans to do in this regard?
One of the things that Iran can do for Russia is to provide medical tourism and religious tourism [for its tourists coming to Iran]. Many Shiites living in Russia are eager to visit Iran, and make a pilgrimage to Imam Reza (PBUH). On the one hand, the medical cost is expensive for them in many countries, but the cost of treatment is cheap in Iran, and Iran can take advantage of this issue. On the other hand, the issue of Hajj is also discussed. Russians travel by air and ground [to Saudi Arabia] for Hajj. There are many people who cannot afford the air travel, and/or are not basically interested in the air travel. They enter Azerbaijan through southern Dagestan, and come to Iran from Azerbaijan, then travel to Saudi Arabia through the Iranian soil - even some of them do this trip by Iranian flights going to Mecca. I think the ground is quite prepared for this. But on tourism, Iran could not make its tourist attractions be known well. If this happens, and the Iranian Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization makes an extra effort, all organizations can cooperate in this regard. I mean if the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization can have a good synergy with the Iranian Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this plan can produce a much better result.”
What's your assessment of the current status of Shi'ism in the region? What ICRO has done so far to reduce the tension between Iran and the followers of different branches of Islam?
To exemplify, we tried to strengthen our official cultural relations with Azerbaijan. I met Mr. Mubariz Gurbanli, Chairman to the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan. He visited Iran twice at my invitation, and I also visited Azerbaijan twice. The Deputy Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan has also recently visited Iran. We developed and expanded these relationships to have cultural relations officially developed. The two countries are interested in the official development of relations. Both countries know they need each other in these areas, and it is beneficial to both countries to engage in cultural fields. Many of our classical literature have been translated into Azeri. The need has been felt in this country to do so. If the Azeri want to understand the poems of Nizami, they should be familiar with the Persian language. If they do not know the Persian language, they will not realize the poems of Nizami.
I believe that the Iranian culture enjoys a kind of richness in itself that the neighboring countries, especially countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, feel they need this culture. In fact, they need this culture to communicate with their own past. We should try to increase the relations between the academic scholars and scientists of the two countries. In the recent visit of the Deputy Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan to Tehran, I suggested that a cultural sector be established for the Caspian littoral states to interact with each other. Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan can therefore interact with each other. These five littoral states can have common cultural sectors with each other. Basically, when cultural relations are strengthened [between two or more countries], the political interactions [between them] will be facilitated as well.”
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