Nowruz, a Harbinger of Cultural Diplomacy

The Persian New Year, which coincided with the commencement of the Vernal Equinox, has arrived and people across Iran and in parts of Central and West Asia and the Middle East are celebrating this ancient festival, which marks the beginning of the new solar year.

Nowruz, meaning the “New Day,” refers to a set of festivities and rites that mark the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year. It is not simply an ordinary event of celebration and rejoicing or a national custom. Rather it is an historical and interregional tradition which dates back to some 3,000 years ago and connects people of different ethnic, lingual and national backgrounds and promotes regional peace and friendship.

Today, Nowruz has been recognized by the international community as a worldwide cultural event with significant social and political implications. Even though many nations observe and enshrine this festival, its origins and roots belong to Iranians, so leaders from different Western countries seize the opportunity of Nowruz every year to reach out to the Iranian people and send political messages to them.

For instance, the U.S. presidents in the recent years have regularly recorded video messages addressed to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year. This message includes their plans and ambitions for strengthening and repairing the long-marred relations between Iran and the United States.

This year, the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague also released a televised message to the Iranian people on Nowruz and stated that his government intends to foster and boost ties with Iran now that the two countries have exchanged charge d’affaires and agreed to resume diplomatic ties after two years of bitterness and suspension of bilateral relations.

On February 23, 2010, the United Nations’ 64th General Assembly, in its 71st meeting, declared March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz and recognized this Persian festival as a global spring festival of Persian origin. Since then, the three major Persian-speaking countries, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, have held international ceremonies to mark Nowruz which falls on March 21, introducing delicacies and subtleties of Nowruz to the world citizens. Nowruz festivals in these countries have always attracted numerous visitors and tourists who are fascinated by the interesting rites of the Persian New Year observed by the people in the region.

At that time, the UN General Assembly “called on Member States that celebrate the festival to study its history and traditions with a view to disseminating that knowledge among the international community and organizing annual commemoration events.” The UN’s emphasis on the necessity for disseminating the knowledge of Nowruz shows why this historical tradition is important not only to the nations celebrating Nowruz but to the whole world.

One year earlier on September 30, 2009, Nowruz was included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The UN body underlined the importance of Nowruz and its “affirmation of life in harmony with nature, the awareness of the inseparable link between constructive labor and natural cycles of renewal and the solicitous and respectful attitude towards natural sources of life.”

Every year, Iranian embassies held ceremonies to celebrate Nowruz, and such efforts are effective in acquainting the word with Persian culture. Nowruz provides Iranian families with the opportunity to visit each other, visit shrines of the dead, donate to charities, help the poor, give alms, recite the Holy Quran and read poems of prominent Iranian poets. Nowruz is a unique occasion that not only builds deeper communal links and relations between people, but also promotes the cultural bonds between all the nations that observe Nowruz. Aside from Tajikistan and Afghanistan, people in Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Albania and Georgia observe Nowruz and it can be claimed that this intangible cultural heritage connects around 300 million people together.

On March 20 this year, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, sent greetings to the presidents of 9 nations celebrating Nowruz. He is also expected to arrive in Afghanistan on Thursday, March 27 to take part in the international celebrations of Nowruz held by the Afghan government.

Nowruz can be viewed as a powerful instrument of cultural diplomacy and soft power which is capable of playing a major role in bringing the nations of this geographical area closer to each other and promoting peace and friendship in a region which usually experiences political turmoil and turbulence as a result of foreign political or military interventions.

Prof. J. Michael Waller, an expert on public diplomacy and strategic communications, defines the notion of cultural diplomacy as an “exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding.” Nations with wise leaders employ “cultural diplomacy” to broaden the public understanding of their ideals and institutions and build up international support for their economic and political goals. If the other nations appreciate your cultural values are interested in what your people believe and practice, they will sympathize with your political agenda and promote your objectives.

Cultural diplomacy, which the experts believe can contribute to achieving the national security aims, is exactly what the United States and the other Western powers are pursuing through producing lavish movies, sending goodwill delegations to different countries, hosting major sports events and opening cultural centers in different parts of the world.

In cultural diplomacy, the language of persuasion and advocacy is used, and arts or cultural symbols of a nation are advertised either directly or indirectly. When the different aspects of a nation’s culture, wealth, scientific and technological advancements, military and industrial might are promoted, that nation’s dignity and self-confidence improves, and it can play a more constructive role in the international political, economic and social equations. Nowruz has turned into a creed and a doctrine which should convince the international community to respect Iran for its rich past and its elaborate cultural heritage. Nowruz is a good opportunity for solidarity and cooperation between the nations that celebrate it, especially the three major Persian-speaking countries where Nowruz was born.

Iran and these neighboring nations can derive benefit from the prospects created by Nowruz to forge closer ties and engage in more constructive cultural, economic and political exchanges.