Saudi Embassy attack: Is vigilantes' excess empowering Rouhani?

Iran's president has reacted swiftly to the Jan. 2 firebombing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by hard-liners, prompting a new debate over the wisdom of Iran's vigilante culture.

Iranian Presidency Office via AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani sits during a meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

By Iranian political standards, heads have started to roll after the ransacking by hard-line forces of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran a week ago.

It was not the first foreign embassy to be attacked since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Nor was the firebombing the first controversial act by hard-line vigilantes, a longstanding force in Iranian politics that often acts with impunity on behalf of shadowy “revolutionary” elements.

But this time President Hassan Rouhani has moved quickly, prompting a new debate in Iran about vigilante culture and its ability to undermine the country’s strategic aims.

The stakes are high: Iran is nearing “implementation day” on the landmark nuclear deal signed with six world powers last July. For Mr. Rouhani – a centrist cleric and frequent target of hard-line rhetoric – it was a signal foreign policy achievement.

Calling the embassy attackers “criminals” and “extremists,” Rouhani has asked the judiciary to immediately investigate those who tarnished Iran’s image. One security chief for Tehran governorate has been sacked; on Monday the commander of police special forces in Tehran, which are responsible for gatherings in the capital, was also replaced.

The Saudi embassy came under attack in retaliation for Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with dozens of alleged members of Al Qaeda.

So far 50 suspects in Iran have been detained, and a newly created task force that includes intelligence and law enforcement officials is to report on the identity of key actors and organizers in just over a week. In a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, Iran vowed to take steps to prevent any future attack on diplomatic missions.

“Somebody misjudged,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii. “Either they went too far, or [the embassy attack] was something that was unacceptable at this moment – whoever decided to push for it – because it detracts from a very, very important moment in Iran’s current history, which is [the nuclear deal] implementation.”

The nuclear accord was possible after several years of intense negotiation because of a consensus among key elements within Iran’s political system – with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei at the top – to resolve the nuclear crisis and fix the economy.

Pressure on conservatives

“Implementation Day” would bring the certification that Iran has dismantled key parts of its nuclear program. This triggers the lifting or suspension of many US, European, and UN sanctions on Iran. Hard-liners accuse Rouhani of caving in on the deal.

“I’m sure Mr. Rouhani is making an argument within the national security establishment that, ‘This [embassy attack] is ridiculous, we can’t do this. Do you want the [deal] implemented, or not?’ ” says Ms. Farhi. “The tactics ultimately have the ability to undercut the strategy ­– no doubt that is part of the argument.”

As firebombs burst against the walls of the embassy, diplomatic police did not or could not prevent the angry demonstrators from taking it over. That shifted the storyline in global media from Saudi Arabia's beheadings of 47 people to Iran’s mob-style tactics.

“Rouhani immediately took action not to rally his own troops, but to push his conservative friends to put pressure on other fellow conservatives, and also upstairs [in Mr. Khamenei’s office], to contain the situation,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, the Iran editor at Al-Monitor news service and a PhD researcher at SOAS, University of London.

Whereas it was months before Khamenei condemned the sacking of the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011, this time judicial and security officials took action within hours.

Condemnation of attack now widespread

The strategy worked because of Rouhani’s “own political center-right alignment,” says Mr. Shabani. “While far short of any specific ‘understanding,’ I think moderate conservatives and Rouhani’s people alike have a mutual interest in isolating and debilitating the most hard-line forces.”

Condemnation of the attack has now become widespread, even from Friday prayer leaders and Revolutionary Guard commanders who often challenge Rouhani’s stated desire for “moderation” in foreign policy.

Officials have blamed “enemy influence” and even “infiltrators” in the crowd bent on violence. And yet, often at such events it is the hard-line elements and not security forces who dictate the end result.

The reformist news website Asr Iran, for example, noted that some attackers “were so relaxed that they had not even covered their faces” and were setting fires a “few steps from the police.”

Khamenei has not commented on the Saudi Embassy attack, but some media quoted a 1989 sermon he gave when he was president, saying: “Do not get close to embassies. If you do not like the policies of the British or Americans or anyone else, this is not the path … to climb over embassy walls.”

Vigilantes active in run-up to elections

Vigilante groups have been used in Iran for at least two centuries, by leaders ranging from local mullahs to the pro-West shah.

But they became far more organized and ideological after 1979. Hard-liners used them in the name of enforcing revolutionary ideals and fighting American and other Western influence. Reformists traditionally have been a target of such groups – and still are – as were Green Movement street protests against the disputed presidential vote in 2009.

They have been active again in the run-up to crucial elections on Feb. 26 for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that could choose the next supreme leader to follow the septuagenarian Khamenei.

“These groups are part and parcel of the Islamic Republic,” says analyst Farhi. “The identity of the Islamic Republic is tied to them, so the [ruling] system has a much harder time directly dealing with right-wing vigilante groups.”

The benchmark will be how the judiciary deals with these cases, and whether punishments are carried out, or the impunity shown in the past prevails.

A cabinet spokesman said Tuesday that the embassy attackers would be prosecuted. "The government will surely take those who attacked the Saudi embassy to court," the spokesman said. 

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