Caren Firouz/Reuters
Members of the Basij militia wait outside Tehran's Mehrabad airport to welcome diplomats expelled from Britain Saturday. All Iranian diplomats left Britain on Friday, expelled by the British government in response to protesters storming its embassy in Tehran, hardening a confrontation between Tehran and the West.

Why Iran lashes out at West

Is Iran pursuing a systematic strategy to provoke its enemies? It's not always that simple.

Amid rising clamor in Israel, the United States, and Europe to stop Iran's nuclear program – possibly with military action – a brief but incendiary news item emerged in Iran.

It purported to quote from the last will of the architect of Iran's missile program, "martyr" Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, who died when a mysterious explosion hit a Revolutionary Guard base last month.

"Write on my tombstone: This is the grave of the one who wanted to annihilate Israel," the obscure Student News Agency reported on Nov. 30, in apparent contradiction of the official line that Iran's missile program is purely defensive.

The decision to publish Moghaddam's final sentiments just a day after hundreds of ideological basiji militants stormed the British embassy – tearing down the Union Jack, stealing portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, and temporarily trapping six diplomats – will be seen by some in the West as further justification for conflict, or at least far harsher sanctions.

What might appear to be part of a systematic strategy by Iran to provoke its enemies, however, may instead be the latest episode in a decades-long pattern of Iranian factions and even "freelancers" using violence and provocative acts to undermine rivals at home – even at the risk of making Iran more vulnerable to attacks from abroad.

Power struggle

The Nov. 29 attack on the British embassy has been cast by analysts as part of a power struggle between Iran's archconservative factions, with some trying to undermine President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"The argument that Iranians are very strategic is [wrong]. They are very tactical: They think very much in terms of the next move, and not where they want to end up," says Shahram Chubin, an Iran specialist based in Geneva for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

All critical debates in Iran today are among ruling but fractious conservatives, with almost no input from the emasculated liberal opposition, he says.

"There's no one to say: 'Hey, have we thought through what this means, because if we alienate the international community, and antagonize the EU all over again, won't we be more vulnerable to an Israeli attack?' " says Mr. Chubin.

"Also there is a tradition of freelancing.... In this case I wouldn't be surprised if it's the Qods Force," he adds, referring to the branch of the Revolutionary Guard that handles covert operations beyond Iran's borders. During the attack on the embassy, portraits of the Qods Force chief were held aloft, and some who breached the gates were identified on Farsi-language websites as Qods Force officers.

The British were an easy target for a regime incensed with increasing pressure from the West.

"There isn't an American embassy to attack," he says. "If you've got a shadow war going on with Israel and the United States, in which people are getting killed and bombed, and facilities are getting attacked, and then they put more pressure on you through the [United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency] and the EU and US sanctions – well, you lash out."

Predictable response; unpredictable endgame

The response was severe: Britain shut down the Iranian Embassy in London and expelled Iran's diplomats; the European Union slapped sanctions on 180 more Iranian entities and people; and the US Senate voted unanimously in favor of sanctions against all who do business with Iran's central bank.

Those were predictable results, but they are leading to an unpredictable endgame. And they fit a long-established pattern that stretches back to 1979, when militant students – acting without the knowledge or even the tacit approval of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – seized the US embassy.

Khomeini later endorsed the move, which was aimed at liberals in the fledgling government but also helped forge a generation of mutual US-Iran hostility.

"It is common for competing groups to sacrifice national interests – such as Iran's international credibility – to achieve their own goals," writes Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a recent analysis.

He quotes the 1988 resignation letter of then-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who complained that his authority had been "taken away" by interference from the supposedly weaker president.

Mousavi wrote that military and intelligence operations were taking place abroad without his government's knowledge. "Only after an airplane is hijacked are we made aware of it. Only after a machine gun opens fire in one of Lebanon's streets and its noise echoes everywhere do we find out. Only after [Saudi police] find explosive material in Iranian pilgrims' baggage am I informed."

The president in question, Ali Khamenei, soon succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader, a post he retains today.

'Freelance' operations

A number of actions, apparently have since contributed to the tarnishing of Iran's regime.

One involved the Karine A cargo ship, which was seized by Israel in 2002 while en route to Gaza – or possibly to Hezbollah in Lebanon – and carried 50 tons of weaponry including Katyusha rockets, which were loaded onto the boat in Iranian waters.

Iranian sources told the Monitor that when then-President Mohammad Khatami sat all of Iran's security and intelligence chiefs around a table and asked for an explanation, none admitted a role.

President George W. Bush soon there-after labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil."

Another freelance operation may be the alleged assassination plot claimed by the US Justice Department in October, which accuses the Qods Force of using an unlikely used-car salesman in Texas to hire Mexican drug-cartel assassins to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington.

"So unlikely are the details that only a power struggle in Iran could justify it," suggests Mr. Khalaji. "If so, the plot's target likely was not [the ambassador] himself, but rather those elements in the regime that seek a diplomatic opening to the US – namely, Ahmadinejad and his circle."

Indeed, the alleged plot prompted US lawmakers to ratchet up their rhetoric against Iran, with some calling for the "killing" of Iranians to avenge what they called an "act of war" and past killing of Americans.

From the Iranian side, are these all signs of deliberately arousing regime enemies, or the fallout from settling their own scores?

“The attack on the British Embassy was not only illegal and disgraceful, it was also a sign of how statecraft has deteriorated over the past years as a result of internal bickering,” writes Trita Parsi, author of the forthcoming “A Single Role of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran,” in the Huffington Post.

“Key actors within the regime are willing to take excessive risks on the international stage through reckless actions in order to score points in their petty domestic rivalries,” writes Mr. Parsi.

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