Foreign Policy Blogs

The Art of Public Diplomacy




Some days, as ordinary as they may seem, become revolutionary in our personal and professional life.  June 20, 2009 was such a day for me; and perhaps for many other Iranians. It was the day that a girl was shot to death in the streets of Tehran allegedly by forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI); they still take no responsibility for this murder. That day I was travelling to collect microfinance-related interviews from Bangladeshi families in remote villages. It was raining hard and already a week that we had set out into the heart of the country. While trying to understand Bangladesh, I would sometimes run off to a corner and wipe off a tear or two as I could not help but worry about my friends who were protesting in the streets of Tehran. I kept hearing bad news: “He got beaten up.”, “Did you hear they arrested her mom?”, “She had to run away from the plainclothes, fell down and was injured. Hospitals don’t take her.”

June 20, 2009 was different. It was a day when a part of me died with Neda. I felt as though life was a tough choice to make every second. As soon as I heard the news, I asked the driver to stop in the nearest village so that I could find some internet access and watch the video of her death. After searching for a long time, I was finally at a place where they claimed to have internet access. The video wouldn’t load. The internet was too slow. I finally managed to watch a few seconds of it; the part when blood gushed out of her eyes until they stopped. I threw up. The translator who was with me said, “Oh no, the water must have been spoiled at lunch” I looked up and said, “It must have.”

It was time to go to visit a new household in this village to inquire about if and how microfinance had changed their lives. We entered the humble house. They were eager to see us. As I was taking out my camera and getting ready for the interview, the man of the family came to greet me. He said in broken English, “I have heard you are from Iran. You are our Muslim sister. Ahmadinejad is our hero. Who are these rebels who keep coming in the streets and make trouble with the support of the evil America? He is an amazing man. We wish he was our president. He is standing up against the US for all of us. It is about time. Make yourself at home, Iranian sister!”

I tried to look down and to nod. But I was not certain if I could stay calm. I wanted to grab his shirt, look straight into his eyes and say, “I am not your Muslim sister, Iranian sister and I am also one of those ‘rebels’ who would have been in the streets of Tehran, if I could.” I only managed to say, “The story is not as simple as you think in Iran, sir! Thank you for having us at your lovely house. Let us begin our conversation about the microfinance loan that you received.”

On the way back from this family’s house, I stayed silent for hours. I had to think. I had to come to terms with Bangladesh’s love for Mr. Ahmadinejad; and not let their love for him make me hate this whole country. He was or is a hero to them. During my time in Bangladesh, I had many similar encounters. Many invited me to their houses and fed me wonderful food just because I was from the nation of their hero; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In all the developing countries (Muslim or non-Muslim) that I have been so far, many have stopped me to praise him. Nobody necessarily praises the IRI as a whole; they all praise him.

Having accepted this reality, I can now put emotions aside and ask, “Why is he their hero?” How did Ahmadinejad manage to reach the hearts of millions throughout the world while millions were protesting his re-election in Iran?  It seems that he is a hero because he stands up against the US in defense of Muslims and others who have felt repressed by the West for centuries. His words and bold statements inspired hope and confidence in the heart of many people throughout the world who have, for centuries, felt unjustly unheard by the West.

Not only Ahamdinejad and others who rule over the country have made Iran exclusively their own , they have also made the non-Western world their own. It is not the world that is responsible to know about the reality of the situation in Iran. It is our responsibility to tell them with the voice that appeals to them. We have to learn the art of public diplomacy from Ahmadinejad. We have to speak the language of Muslims and others throughout the world to be heard not as the angry opposition; but as human beings who peacefully claim their land, rights and freedom.

We have to learn from Ahmadinejad. We have to speak out and do so calmly and confidently. As long as we write and talk only in Western tribunes, our voice will be misunderstood in the rest of the world. The world often calls us “westernized” for claiming our basic rights. This is partly the fault of the government and the world. But, it is also our fault. We have forgotten to speak the language of the world. Our struggle has become confined in phrases such as “human rights” that sadly bears negative and seemingly western connotations for many. We have to learn from Ahmadinejad and speak a language that appeals beyond the jargons of human rights. We have to begin to talk in the language of the world. For instance, the world might not appreciate “human rights”, but it certainly understands “justice”. Let us tell our stories in the name of justice instead of human rights. Let us remember that the world goes beyond only the US and Europe. The rest of the world has yet to hear the story of injustices in Iran. If we relate our story to their language and contextualize it from their perspective, they will not walk away with indifference.  Let us learn the art of public diplomacy from Ahmadinejad: appealing to your audience while telling a story of your own.



Azadeh Pourzand
Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.

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