British embassy attack exposes tensions outside – and inside – Iran

Some Iranian conservatives praised yesterday's attack on the British embassy, while others condemned it as endangering national security as tensions rise with the West.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A British police officer stands guard outside the Iranian Embassy in London, Wednesday. Britain's foreign secretary on Wednesday ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the UK within 48 hours following attacks on the British embassy and a residential compound in Tehran.
Sang Tan/AP
British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at his official residence in London to meet Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, shortly after he announced at the House of Commons that all Iranian diplomatic staff were ordered to leave the UK, in London, Wednesday.

One day after the sacking of its embassy in Tehran by pro-regime Iranian militants, Britain has evacuated all its diplomats from Iran, closed its embassy, and ordered the expulsion of all Iranian diplomats from London within 48 hours.

The decision is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter clash between the Islamic Republic – burdened by an increasing array of sanctions over its nuclear program – and the West.

It also reflects divisions among hard-line conservatives within Iran's ruling elite, as members of the basiji ideological militia and others stormed the embassy walls, tore down and burned British flags, and carted away the cast-iron coat of arms featuring two lions. Today some conservative voices and websites praised the attack, while others condemned it as endangering national security.

The attack was a "grave violation" of diplomatic convention, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament moments after the last British diplomat had left Iran.

"Iran is a country where opposition leaders are under house arrest, where more than 500 people have been executed so far this year, and where genuine protest is ruthlessly stamped on," said Mr. Hague. "The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy, or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent, is fanciful."

Shortly afterward, Norway shut its embassy and Germany announced that it was recalling its ambassador from Tehran, amid reports that other European nations may follow.

Regime involvement?

The scene yesterday resembled that in November 1979, shortly after Iran's Islamic revolution, when militant students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days – paving the way for a generation of hostilities between the US and Iran.

While the US and Israel still rank as "enemies" in Iran – the flags of both nations were set alight with the Union Jack yesterday – Iranian officials have recently aimed more hostility toward Britain.

The latest spark was London's recent decision to target Iran's central bank with sanctions aimed at halting Iran's nuclear work, which the US, Britain, and Israel believe is aimed at making a bomb.

Iranian officials decried the British move as an act of war, moved to expel British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott, and promised that more steps would be taken.

A statement published in the name of hundreds of "student" protesters by the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard force, declared that action would continue.

The agency also reported that police had to finally use tear gas to clear the embassy, and arrested a dozen protesters at the embassy's Golhak residential garden compound further north in Tehran.

"The revolutionary students' move today and occupation of the Old Fox's Den of Plots [British Embassy] was only a meager response to this declaration of war and Britain should wait for the coming moves of the great Iranian nation who intends to settle an old score for years of plotting [against Iran]," the statement read.

Persian-language news websites identified in photographs some of the protesters as leaders of the Basij militia – which is commanded by the Guard – and the Guard's Qods Force, which handles Iranian military and covert actions abroad.

Neither Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor the arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose respective supporters have been locked in political battle since last spring – have yet spoken about the events. But Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the universities said students had proven “they found the center of sedition.”

"An attack like that could not have happened, unless it was approved quite high up," says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. "I don't know what level it was on, because we haven't heard yet from Khamenei, but it must have come from a high source."

Iran singles out Britain

While Persia has historical grudges with Britain that stretch back centuries, the latest surge dates to the 2009 presidential election, when millions of Iranians took to the street to protest the declared reelection of Mr. Ahmadinejad, only to be crushed.

Among foreign enemies the US and Israel – in times past called the "Great Satan" and "Little Satan" by revolutionary leaders – Britain was singled out then for being the most determined to overthrow the regime.

"Pressure has been mounting on the relationship between Iran and the UK over the past two years, triggered by the 2009 post-election protest, which was widely reported by the newly set-up BBC Persian TV, which the Iranian government described as a 'soft war' on Iran," says Ms. Torfeh.

The second blow was the new British sanctions against the central bank of Iran, which "annoys the authorities endlessly," since the Revolutionary Guard is the main engine for the economy, she adds.

Ahmadinejad admitted to parliament in recent weeks that Iran was facing "the biggest offensive in history," such that all banking operations, trade, "all our purchases and sale, all our agreements are being monitored and blocked."

The attack on the embassy – in which basijis and other militants were mobilized to mark the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari – revealed a broader issue about the internal political fight in Iran.

"It illustrates their frustration with the sanctions regime," says Torfeh. "The sanctions are targeting those who are actually responsible for human rights abuses, and those at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic – those who are running the economy, and those involved in huge embezzlements. Its aim could be in splitting them up, and if it is, then we are seeing the results, because they are splitting up.... It's an internal fight."

That fight was fed by soundbites of those chanting "Death to Britain" at the embassy.

"We want to show to the entire world our hatred for the British and the American governments, like we did 30 years ago, when we closed the US Embassy," one young woman wearing a black chador told Al Jazeera English during the protest. "Today this embassy must be closed too."

"We are here to close the British embassy forever, as this place is like the US Embassy, a center for spying, and should be shut down," said one man, wearing a beard and fleece hat.

Indeed, on Monday Khamenei declared in a speech that "Iran has stood up against the will of the biggest arrogant and colonialist powers alone and shattered their resolve." He specifically pointed to Britain, as a colonial power that aimed to make Iran "forget" the roots of it civilization.

Iran watcher Scott Lucas on his EAWorldview website suggests that Iran's actions stem from a position of weakness. He notes Iran's economic problems and sanctions, a spate of recent unexplained explosions at military and industrial facilities, and a report from the UN's nuclear watchdog agency that details past weapons-related projects, all of those prompting the "regime ... to hit back."

The original "script" Tuesday was perhaps only to enter the embassy, replace the Union Jack with the Iranian flag, "then leave in triumph," writes Mr. Lucas. But then protesters refused to leave.

His analysis speculates that the regime could be banking on "the Shadow of the Final Game," using the prospect of military confrontation to help them mask economic problems and political infighting.

Iran's decision earlier this week to expel the British ambassador, after just one month on the job, was a "very big mistake," says Torfeh.

"The British ambassador was one of the high-ranking diplomats who was actually in Tehran. He could have been used by the [Iranian regime] as a way of resolving the problems with the West. Instead now ... they have set themselves up against the rest of the world, and made themselves far more isolated."

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