Iran releases protesters detained in British embassy attack

Eleven protesters in the British embassy attack were released last night. Britain is rallying Europe to clamp down hard on Iran.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A British police officer stands guard outside the Iranian Embassy in London, Wednesday. Britain's foreign secretary on Wednesday ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the U.K within 48 hours following attacks on the British embassy and a residential compound in Tehran.

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Iran heightened suspicion of its complicity in Tuesday's attack on the British embassy in Tehran by releasing 11 of the protesters detained without explanation. British government officials vowed to take further action against Iran and to bring other European countries on board ahead of a European Union meeting today.

Damaging property can carry a prison term for as much as three years in Iran, the Associated Press reports. Yesterday's release of the protesters, who were described as students, could "indicate the 11 have high-level protection from circles within the Iranian establishment," according to the AP. But Iran watchers have contested the storyline of a student-led attack, arguing that at least some of the protesters were members of the

In solidarity with Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have recalled their own ambassadors to Tehran. Foreign Secretary William Hague vowed to push for an intensification of European sanctions when he meets with European Union officials today, the Guardian reports.

The events were sparked by Britain's decision to cut off Iranian access to the British banking system in order to undermine Iran's nuclear work, which much of the West believes is aimed at making a nuclear bomb. The embassy attack began as a protest calling for the expulsion of the British ambassador to Tehran because of that decision. Earlier in the week, the Iranian parliament – known as the majlis – voted in favor of reducing its ties with Britain.

The Tehran Times reports that the downgrading of ties is only the first step, and says the Iranian public broadly supports such measures.

As Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani noted after the ratification of the bill, it is only the beginning for Britain, and the Islamic Republic will consider taking tougher measures, including cutting relations in all the previous areas of cooperation. Due to Britain’s longstanding animosity toward the Iranian nation, all citizens are happy to hear that the level of diplomatic relations with the country has been downgraded to the minimum level. 

The British Embassy’s failure to fulfill its environmental responsibilities in regard to the British ambassador’s summer residence in the Qolhak Garden in northern Tehran, where about 310 trees were cut down, has intensified the people’s anger.  

And the Iranian people believe that the British Embassy’s next act of treachery against the country will be worse than cutting down trees. 

But not all Iranians – even in conservative circles – appear to support the attack. An article in The Wall Street Journal posited that Tuesday's attack may have been an attempt by some conservative factions to curry favor with Iran's hard-line leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ahead of March parliamentary elections.

"There seems to be a rivalry among conservative politicians to say and act as revolutionary and radical as possible to please Mr. Khamenei," said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former Iranian lawmaker who is now a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Tuesday's protesters, who belong to the student wing of the Basij militia, a volunteer force of Islamic government loyalists, said they had organized the protest days in advance, but said on Tuesday that the storming of the embassy was spontaneous.

 However, many Iran watchers have challenged the storyline of a spontaneous attack born out of popular hatred for Britain, arguing instead that the Basij – which is controlled by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard – played a major role. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, called those involved with the embassy attack “government-controlled rent-a-mobs," Bloomberg reports.

The website of the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is linked to the guards, carried multiple stories praising the "students" who carried out the embassy attack but offered little coverage of the international condemnation. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said the protesters' actions reflected popular opinion in Iran.

Mustafa Alani, director of national security at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, told Bloomberg that Iran's nationalist rhetoric is a result of the increasing pressure on the government. 

 “Britain was heavily involved in Libya and possibly will be involved in Syria and so there is general belief in Iran that the British are doing the job of the U.S. in the region, including spying on Iran,” he said. “The Iranians are panicking and they don’t know what to do. This reaction against the UK and possibly against other countries is part of this panicking mood.”

Indeed, many see any regime involvement in or consent to the attack as coming from a position of weakness.

In an Op-Ed for the Huffington Post, Maryam Zar, a former journalist who spent time in Iran, posits that this attack was nothing like the attack on the US embassy in 1979 that reflected widespread popular discontent. She disputes Iran's claims that the most recent attack represented broad public opinion.

They are not on the streets chanting to create the next great satan. They are not eager to jettison yet another Western power. They are not imbued with a sense of religious or ideological zeal to make them risk everything for a principled belief. In fact, they don't have much to risk. They are hungry and tired and are looking for hope, not another confrontation.

This embassy ransack wasn't the work of ordinary Iranian youth. This was a message crafted behind the scenes and delivered by players with a script. Riot police were deployed and stood in the way of the attacking mob. But armed with pelt guns and tear gas, they still couldn't hold back the protesters, even though the crowd was small -- much smaller than the throngs of people who protested during the Green movement. Yet Riot police couldn't hold them back? This was no display of simultaneous inspiration. This was a government that feels increasingly cornered, attempting to show the world it still has popular support. 

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