Britain shuts down its embassy in Iran

Britain has withdrawn all its diplomats after yesterday's attack on its embassy, and ordered all Iranian diplomats out of Iran within 48 hours.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian protesters break the windows of a British Embassy building, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Britain has closed its embassy in Iran and withdrawn all of its diplomats, insisting that Iran follow suit by closing its London embassy immediately and withdrawing its diplomats in the next 48 hours.

The diplomatic break follows an attack on the British embassy in Tehran yesterday that evolved from protests calling for the expulsion of the British ambassador to Iran – a demand made this weekend by Iran's parliament.

The BBC reports that Foreign Secretary William Hague said that there was "some degree of regime consent" in the attacks on the embassy and another British diplomatic compound in Tehran. 

"If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here," Mr. Hague said. He also said that relations between Britain and Iran are at their lowest level yet, but that ties have not yet been totally severed. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack on the embassy "outrageous and indefensible" and said it was a "disgrace" that the Iranian government did not protect the British staff and property, CNN reports.

"The Iranian government must recognize that there will be serious consequences for failing to protect our staff," Mr. Cameron said. "We will consider what these measures should be in the coming days."

The protest stemmed from a vote in the Iranian parliament Sunday to expel the ambassador and downgrade relations with Britain in response to Britain's decision last week to cut financial ties with Iran, blocking the country's access to the British banking sector, according to CNN.

The government asserts that the protests evolved from student-organized rallies. But it's not clear if students led the protests or if hard-line forces like the paramilitary corps run by the Revolutionary Guard are responsible, reports the Associated Press. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, said the anger was a result of "several decades of domination-seeking behavior of Britain." He also said the United Nations Security Council's condemnation of the attack was "hasty."

[ Video is no longer available. ]

Tuesday's attack has prompted comparisons to the 1979 attack on the US embassy in Tehran, which was also conducted by students. The Associated Press writes:

The attackers ripped down the Union Jack, torched an embassy vehicle and tossed looted documents before riot police eventually cleared the areas. "Death to England!" some cried outside the compound in the first significant assault of a foreign diplomatic area in Iran in years.

Chants called for the closure of the embassy and called it a "spy den" — the same phrase used after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and held 52 hostages for 444 days. In the early moments of that siege, protesters tossed out papers from the compound and pulled down the U.S. flag. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since then.

A top Iranian legislator praised the embassy attack, citing it as a second iteration of the 1979 attack. "The move by the Iranian youth at the British embassy was the occupation of the second den of spies (in Iran)," said Seyed Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

Guardian columnist Ian Black provides historical context for Tuesday's embassy attack, pointing out that Britian-Iran relations have been uneasy (at best) for decades. Britain was accused in 1979 both of supporting the shah and the revolution that overthrew him. It has been dubbed the "Little Satan" to the "Great Satan" of the United States, Mr. Black writes.

An editorial in the left-leaning Guardian lobbed accusations of Iranian government complicity, but urged Britain to act with restraint.

This may not have been a government-sanctioned operation but it was an official one, with three conservative institutions, the parliament, the judiciary and the supreme leader, behind it.

The figleaf behind which Britain normally hides is to say that the embassy was attacked because it was there. True, British diplomats had been anticipating a major protest to mark the anniversary of the assassination of the senior Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari. … But there is more to this than the traditional Iranian belief, grounded, it has to be said, in history, that Britain is the master string-puller behind all that is bad that happens in Tehran.… Another Iranian MP was quoted as saying that Britain needed a punch in the mouth. The attack on the embassy was well signposted.

In a column for the right-leaning British newspaper The Telegraph, pundit Neil Gardiner calls British efforts at "constructive engagement" with Tehran a "spectacular failure" and says Britain should back the US if it decides to take military action against Iran.

There was nothing spontaneous about Tuesday's storming of the British Embassy compound in Tehran by “Iranian students.” The menacing thugs, including paramilitaries, who burned the Union Jack, insulted the Queen and chanted “death to England” were unquestionably rampaging with the full blessing of Iran’s theocracy, their actions broadcast live on Iranian state television in front of millions as they carried pictures of the Supreme Leader. This was a carefully orchestrated act of mob violence directed by a government with a long track record of brutalizing its own people and sponsoring acts of international terrorism.

The West must do all it can to bring Iran’s regime to its knees with the toughest sanctions possible and extensive support for opposition movements, but also through the credible threat of force. If the United States does eventually take military action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power, Britain should stand firmly alongside its closest ally. There can be no compromise in the face of the Iranian threat: this is an Islamist dictatorship that cannot be negotiated with or appeased in any way.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.