French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends the opening of the Louvre's exhibit in Tehran.

‘Cultural Diplomacy’ In Action: Louvre Exhibit Opens In Tehran

Amid tensions over U.S. threat to withdraw from nuclear deal, France uses “soft power” to try to sway Iran

Iranian citizens, tourists and reporters flocked to Iran’s National Museum on Tuesday as it welcomed more than 50 works of art from Paris’ iconic Louvre, ranging from a 2,400-year-old Egyptian sphinx to a bust of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to drawings by Rembrandt. Officially opened by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the exhibit—curated to display works tracing the Louvre’s history, from its founding in 1793 to date—marks the first time in Iran’s modern history that a major Western museum has been allowed to set up shop in its territory.

It comes amid growing tensions between France and Iran, with Le Drian having made his trip to Tehran primarily to push for curbs to the country’s ballistic missile program in a bid to save the 2015 nuclear accord. This, after U.S. President Donald Trump in January for the second time de-certified the Islamic Republic’s compliance with the deal and vowed to re-impose sanctions on Iran unless the pact’s “disastrous flaws” are amended. To this end, Washington is pressuring European powers to help devise a “follow-on” agreement to address both Iran’s “nefarious” regional ambitions and its perceived flouting of a United Nations Security Council resolution related to its ballistic missile program.

Dr. Sanam Vakil, Associate Fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, explained to The Media Line that “these tensions have arisen due to Iran’s [testing] of ballistic missiles and its negative influences on the Middle East, however France has been at the forefront of trying to maintain diplomatic ties and rectify the situation.” She further noted that the Louvre’s exhibit in Tehran constitutes an example of “cultural diplomacy,” which “is an important part of relations between [the two nations], which are diverse, strategic and robust, more so than one would assume from statements made by French officials in recent weeks.”

In this respect, the Louvre revealed in a statement ahead of the show’s opening in Iran that its international operations and decision-making process are largely influenced by, if not totally aligned with, French diplomatic priorities. In fact, a new Louvre museum was opened late last year in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, a close ally Sunni Saudi Arabia which is Shiite Iran’s arch-foe. Many analysts viewed the move as an attempt by Paris to balance its interests in the region as it re-engages with Tehran in the wake of the atomic agreement.

The idea for the Louvre exhibit was hatched during Iranian President Hassan Rouhan’s visit to France in 2016, at a time when his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron was promoting the use of “soft power”—a component of which includes cultural diplomacy—to strengthen France’s global standing. Reinforcing this notion, Le Drian was quoted at an event sponsored by French oil giant Total, which has significant investments in Iran, that, “in the turbulent ocean of international diplomacy, cultural diplomacy is a beacon we must keep alight.”

Dr. Vakil stressed to The Media Line that “France is an incredibly important economic partner for Iran and many French companies—[such as Total, Peugeot and Renault, for example]—have invested in the country despite uncertainties [caused by international sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear program].”

According to Dr. Emmanuel Navon, a Professor of International Relations at Tel Aviv University, the move to hold the Louvre display is “typical of a French government that has created a lot of soft power throughout the world through its cultural efforts.” It comes at a perfect time, he elaborated to The Media Line, as “Macron is now trying to leverage that soft power and turn it into genuine diplomatic strength that can influence the Iranian government.”

However, Dr. Navon remains somewhat skeptical of the French approach, adding that “they don’t yet have the economic capability to transform their soft power into hard power. France is also acting by themselves in their efforts to maintain the 2015 nuclear deal due to the absence of the U.S. and a united European front.”

On the flip side, the exhibition may be a way for Iran to enhance its image among European citizens; this, even as its ups its anti-Western (specifically, anti-American) rhetoric. In fact, Dr. Navon described the initiative as an Iranian government “PR effort, [as] Rouhani wants to show that he’s open to the west [while] attempt[ing] to diffuse criticism regarding recent crackdowns on protests and free speech.”

For her part, Dr. Vakil noted that the “Iranian [population on the whole] isn’t anti-western. They just don’t want foreign powers influencing domestic affairs and that has nothing to do with their affinity for culture or literature. In fact, Iran has the largest collection of western art in the region.”

The Louvre exhibit is slated to remain open for months, during which time Paris will have to balance playing hardball with the Iranians, in order to placate the White House and stave off Washington’s threatened withdrawal from the nuclear deal, with its desire to foster deeper relations with the Islamic Republic.

(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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