Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Government and International Affairs

Major Professor

Bernd Reiter, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Mohsen Milani, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Philip Seib, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Earl Conteh-Morgan, Ph.D.


Islamic Republic of Iran, Foreign Policy, Strategy, Influence


This dissertation is a case study of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s approach to soft power with a focus on Iran’s use of soft power in Afghanistan. This dissertation is unique as it a delves into the diverse conceptual prescriptions on soft power, especially from a non-Western perspective. Studies of soft power in the current International Relations discipline ignore the implicit widespread liberal democratic bias in the current understanding of the concept. This dissertation argues that there are certain ontological assumptions lying deep within the soft power model first proposed by Joseph Nye (1990) that make it difficult to use as a model for studying non-Western states. This stems from Nye’s consideration that sources of attraction, essential in wielding soft power, as universal and equivalent to Western liberal values. Nye does not consider how the sources of attraction that he identifies are biased towards a Western notion of values, culture, policies and institutions. This has led to a disregard of the use of soft power by non-Western states. Thus, the aim of this study is to address the western-centric limitation of Nye’s concept by offering a reconceptualization that can be applied in studying the soft power of states that do not necessarily adhere to the same universal norms.

By applying Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis framework, this dissertation examines Iran’s soft power strategy in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2017, in order to enhance its influence. Iran’s soft power application relies on what that the author calls ‘affinity’, whereby audience-oriented and localized resources of attraction are identified in the target population and are subsequently discursively cultivated. Attraction build through the ‘affinity’ process is different than Western states’ use of attraction and application of soft power.

This dissertation highlights how Iran has created an affinity node centered on a ‘sense of brotherhood’ with its Afghanistan audience. It also shows that the strength of this narrative is in Iran’s ability to create an emotional connection that is embedded in commonalities between the two countries’ in terms of culture, historical legacy, and common language. The analysis presented shows the affinity node of brotherhood appears in over 20 speeches and statements targeted at the Afghan population by the Iranian supreme leader and successive Iranian presidents in recent decades. The notion of brotherhood provides Iran the emotional linkage, the affinity node, to connect with its Afghan audience.

The affinity that Iran establishes with Afghanistan allows Iran to articulate its foreign policy objectives by showing how Iranian influence benefits the Afghan population and appeals to existing Afghan values. In addition, this dissertation finds that Iran devotes considerable

resources to the development of these discourses in Afghanistan through the various institutions that in charge of Iran’s public diplomacy activities. The focus of these activities is mainly in the realm of culture, education, and language, leveraging the common ties between Iran and their Afghan audience.

Lastly, the findings of this study indicate that Iran’s approach to soft power is strategically calculated. Iran makes explicit use of soft power that is different from the original notion of soft power as it was formulated by Nye. Iran’s actions show that sources of attraction

do not have to be universal, attraction is contextual in its appeal, based on each target audience and can be constructed through discourses. Thus, as Laclau and Mouffe (1985) would say, Iran’s articulation of an antagonistic discourse challenges the hegemonic discourses that are associated with the Western evaluation of soft power.