Good Reads: Why British diplomats consider Tehran a 'hardship post'

Yesterday's rampage by Iranian 'students' are just the latest example of how Iranian domestic anger gets focused on diplomats.

Abolfazl Salmanzadeh/Mehr News Agency/Reuters
A protester opens a door in the British embassy compound in Tehran, Tuesday. Britain began evacuating diplomatic staff from Iran on Wednesday and warned of serious consequences for the Iranian government, one day after protesters stormed the British Embassy in the most violent incident yet as relations rapidly deteriorate.

With troops pulling out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the global war on terror appears to be all but finished. But the reverberations from that war may be felt for some time.

Earlier this week, US-Pakistani relations took a dive because of a NATO bombing raid on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Yesterday, Iranian students and members of an elite volunteer militia called the “Basij” – apparently not held back by Iranian police – jumped the fence and raided the British Embassy in Tehran, prompting London to pull back most of its diplomats there. Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that there would be “serious consequences.”

America’s and Britain’s relations with Iran – which appeared to be moving toward rapprochement in the early days following Sept. 11 attacks – have since taken a nosedive after Bush administration officials increasingly attempted to draw links between Iran’s security services and Al Qaeda as well as concerns about a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. In that context, yesterday’s protests by Iranian students make sense, but what would get them so angry to raid the British embassy is a bit hard to explain. The Guardian’s Riazat Butt does write, in his penultimate paragraph, this explanation.

The storming of the embassy was triggered by the UK's decision to sever ties to the Iranian banking system and parliament, the Majlis, after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report citing "credible" evidence that Iranian scientists had experimented with a nuclear warhead design and could be continuing to do so.

Frequent readers of the Monitor – you know who you are – will have read Scott Peterson’s excellent piece on Nov. 8 detailing the IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program. Relying on intelligence reports and Iranian official information smuggled out of the country in a pilfered laptop, the IAEA concluded that Iran had continued to study ways to enrich uranium beyond the normal uses of civilian power-generation, and also continued to study ways to deliver a nuclear payload aboard Iran’s long-range Shahab-3 missiles. Iran has hotly denied that its nuclear program is for anything other than peaceful purposes, and calls the IAEA report “politically motivated.”

The Iranian rampage has all the elements of us-versus-them that characterizes so much about international politics these days, but the Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink and Joby Warrick note that there are signs of dissension within the Iranian regime about whether the student raid on the British embassy was appropriate behavior. Students raiding the embassy pledged loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Post wrote, while a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the rampage “unacceptable.”

Far from being triumphant and confident, Iran’s regime appears to be showing signs of distress, the Post’s writers quote Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert, as saying.

“Attacking the U.K. Embassy paints a picture of a regime that is deeply distressed and flustered,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iranian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadjadpour described the Basij militia members who stormed the compound as “government-controlled rent-a-mobs” who are at the beck and call of Iranian security forces.

Americans of a certain age will remember that Tehran students have made the raiding of embassies into a fine art form, and the raiding of a US embassy in 1979 and capturing more than 60 US diplomats. Some were released within weeks, but 52 were held hostage for 444 days. An arms-for-hostages deal, orchestrated by a soon-to-be radio talk-show host Col. Oliver North in the White House of President Ronald Reagan helped to end that escapade. But that 1979 embassy raid was by no means the first time an embassy mission had been defiled in Iran, notes Uri Freedman in today’s Foreign Policy. Iranian raids are, like, so 1829.

Tehran also witnessed what may be the earliest instance of an embassy assault (if an earlier example comes to mind, please share it with us). In January 1829, Alexander Griboyedov, a famous Russian playwright tasked with imposing a humiliating peace treaty on the Persians, was murdered along with nearly his entire staff when a furious mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran following a series of disputes between Griboyedov and the Shah.

Jon Lee Anderson, on the New Yorker magazine’s website, notes that a certain set of Iranians seem to regard Britain as an even greater enemy than they do the US. Part of this goes back to the Great Game, where Britain and Russia used Persia and Afghanistan as a chessboard to compete for control of Central Asia.

As Mr. Anderson writes:

To certain Britons, the enduring Iranian conspiracy theories about them are a source of some pride and quaint nostalgia, a reminder of a time in which Great Britain was central to world politics, rather than a receding bit player. For some Iranians, similarly, who look back to a long-ago time when their nation ruled over a great swath of Central Asia, the British are a convenient target for historical grievances, and Iran’s nuclear program is a means to restore their country to its rightful place amongst the world’s leading nations. But today’s scene was not just about those two nations: it was a new and poignant reminder of the limitations of international diplomacy in an increasingly polarized world in which rampaging mobs, for some countries, have effectively replaced foreign policy.

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