Iran hard-liners see Saudi Embassy attack as a win-win. Are they wrong?

By attacking the embassy, hard-liners were poking the Saudis and Iran's moderate President Rouhani. But some see the move as counterproductive.

Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP
Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

When hard-line Iranian demonstrators torched part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran Sunday night to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, it wasn’t just the building that was damaged.

Up in smoke, too, went President Hassan Rouhani’s effort to mend ties with Saudi Arabia as part of a broader engagement with Gulf states and the West. On Monday Saudi Arabia announced it was cutting diplomatic relations with Iran, and two of its Sunni Gulf allies and Sudan similarly cut or downgraded their ties.

Iran's Fars News Agency pithily asked if the Saudis wanted to follow the failed path of the US to pressure Iran, and how long it would take them to “understand, like their ally America … that they will have to accept Iran’s regional role and presence.”

The attack on the embassy and the cutting of ties has exacerbated an already tense confrontation across the Middle East between the rival Sunni and Shiite powers, reflected in bloody conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

For hard-liners who detest Mr. Rouhani and his bid to open up Iran, the attack on the embassy was a win-win: They gave Saudi Arabia a public bloody nose, while at the same time undermining their centrist president’s attempts to calm tensions with long-standing rivals.

But others bemoaned a shift in narrative that is negative and counterproductive for Iran – from the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric and 46 others, most of them linked to Al Qaeda, to the spectacle in Iran of another embassy sacking.

The torching fits a pattern evident since the 1979 Islamic revolution in which some factions in Iran are ready to make tactical gains against domestic opponents, regardless of the high cost to Iran’s national security or diplomatic interests.

Letter to UN chief voices regret

Rouhani blamed “extremists” for the attack and said it was “unjustifiable,” even as some hard-line media called for attacks on Saudi officials and even military bases.

“What hard-liners saw was a fabulous way of discrediting Rouhani and making it look like ‘we are in charge,’ ” says Dina Esfandiary, at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London. “And remember that until the [late February] parliamentary elections, and perhaps even further, that’s the only thing that’s on their minds.”

“I don’t think they thought for a second, ‘Oh, this is going to take attention away from the plight of the Shias,’ ” says Ms. Esfandiary. “Obviously there are some among [hard-liners] who disagree, but I think sometimes we give Iran a little too much credit for thinking ahead and really planning what it’s going to do.”

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that was made public Monday afternoon, Iran said it "expresses regret over the [embassy and consulate attacks] and will spare no efforts in arresting and prosecuting all those who brought them about." The letter also said that Iran "will take necessary measures" to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Conservatives divided

While there appeared to be near-universal anger in Iran and in Shiite communities across the Middle East over the killing of Mr. Al-Nimr – an outspoken supporter of more rights for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, who Saudi officials accused of “terrorist” acts – the embassy attack revealed divisions among Iran’s conservative ranks.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that “divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.”

The editor of the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari – an official representative of Mr. Khamenei – wrote of his hope that Saudi princes who travel to the US and Europe “for extravagance and pleasure-seeking will be targeted for the unjust blood of Ayatollah Nimr" and the civilians killed in Yemen and Syria and beyond.

And yet even the frequent Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami – always a hard-line stalwart at the pulpit – tried to dial back the anti-Saudi fervor, calling for street protests only and saying “we don’t gain anything by attacking embassies and setting them ablaze.”

Since militant students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 there has been a tradition in Iran of targeting embassies, from nations as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Denmark to Britain, whose embassy was ransacked in 2011.

How attack could boomerang

Khamenei has set the tone in a series of speeches since September, in which he said the Islamic Republic’s strident anti-Americanism – chants of “Death to America” and other pillars of the revolution – would not change, despite the landmark nuclear deal signed last July between Iran and six world powers.

Khamenei has repeatedly called on Iran’s power centers to beware of “soft war” and cultural “infiltration” from the West, which he says is more dangerous than security issues. Many protesters linked Saudi Arabia to its close ally the United States.

At the same time, Rouhani has been engaged in fierce political battles at home, where hard-liners who opposed the popular nuclear deal have sought every means to prevent it from giving centrist candidates a bounce in elections next month.

In that context, however, the embassy attack could boomerang against the hard-liners.

“From Rouhani’s perspective, I don’t think he comes out looking as bad as everybody else is making out, because he’s taken quite a strong line against the storming of the embassy,” says analyst Esfandiary. “He can turn around and say, ‘You see what I have to deal with? This is part of my everyday life.’ It seems that gets a little more credibility after this.”

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