Iranian Protesters Storm Embassy in Tehran
Iranian protesters stormed British diplomatic compounds Tuesday, hauling down the British flag, torching an embassy vehicle and pelting buildings with Molotov cocktails in what began as an allegedly state-approved show of anger over the latest Western sanctions to punish Tehran for defiance over its nuclear program. According to Western media sources, the late-afternoon demonstration outside the British Embassy was organized by pro-government groups at universities and Islamic seminaries, and could not have taken place without official sanction. However, such anti-Western rallies often draw ultraconservative factions such as the basiji, a paramilitary group run by the powerful Revolutionary Guard that is directly controlled by Iran’s ruling theocracy. Riot police initially tried to stop protesters in an attempt to hold them back, but protesters quickly surged past police and barricades and scaled the walls at the embassy complex. By nightfall, more than three hours after the assaults began, Iranian authorities appeared to have regained control of both British compounds. Riot police surrounded the embassy compound and officials said all protesters were driven out. However, sporadic clashes persisted, including some where police fired tear gas to disperse crowds, according to semi-official Iranian news agency Fars. Some protesters were arrested, it said.
Protesters chanted calls 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.
Iran’s state TV said Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret about “unacceptable behavior” of protesters, saying Iran respects international agreements to protect diplomatic sites.
Calling Tuesday’s attack “outrageous and indefensible,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Iran’s failure to defend the embassy and its staff was a disgrace and would have “serious consequences.” Cameron said all embassy staff had been accounted for and praised Britain’s ambassador to Iran for handling a “dangerous situation with calm and professionalism.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague downplayed suggestions of a potential hostage situation, saying there had been “confusing” reports coming out of Iran. Cameron also condemned Iran for “its unacceptable failure to protect diplomats in line with international law. The Iranian government must immediately ensure the continued safety of our staff, return all property and secure the compound immediately. Those responsible for this criminal attack must be prosecuted.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disturbed” by Tuesday’s events and urged the Iranian government to hold those responsible to account. “For rioters to essentially be able to overrun the embassy and set it on fire is an indication that the Iranian government is not taking its international obligations seriously,” Obama said.
The protests outside the British Embassy, on a main street in downtown Tehran about a mile from the former U.S. Embassy, included protesters carrying photographs of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, who was killed last year in an attack that Iran blamed on Israeli and British spy services. The U.S. and many allies fear that Iran’s nuclear program could eventually lead to nuclear weapons. Tehran says it only seeks reactors for energy and research, but will not give up the technology to make its own nuclear fuel. On Monday, the U.S., Britain and Canada announced more sanctions intended to further isolate Iran’s economy, which is widely seen as the trigger for Tuesday’s protests.
Tensions with Britain date back to the 19th century when the Persian monarchy gave huge industrial concessions to London, which later included significant control over Iran’s oil industry. In 1953, Britain and the U.S. helped organized a coup that overthrew a nationalist prime minister and restored the pro-Western shah to power. In recent years, Iran was angered by Britain’s decision in 2007 to honor author Salman Rushdie with a knighthood. Rushdie went into hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a 1989 religious edict, ordering Muslims to kill him because his novel “The Satanic Verses” allegedly insulted Islam. In March 2007, Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines for allegedly entering the country’s territorial waters in the Gulf – a claim Britain denies. The 15 were released after nearly two weeks in captivity. The particular border, disputed by both Iran and Iraq, has been a source of tension between those two nations since the end of World War II. Britain and the US recognize the Iraqi interpretation of the border, which is defined by a shifting underwater sand bar.
Since the Bush Administration, sanctions and political rhetoric have degraded relations between Iran and Western nations, as well as increased tensions in the Middle East. Shortly after the revelation of a highly classified intelligence operation, and the woman who was key to it, by US officials to the media, it was revealed that Iran had a nuclear enrichment program. Iran claims the program is for energy generation, but the West, and in particular the US and Israel, claim the program is designed for nuclear weapons production. Years of political clashes and economic sanctions have resulted in increased tensions, not to mention a growing aggressiveness by Iran, while straining relations between the US and Britain on one side, with Russia and the Peoples Republic of China on the other.
With tensions already nearing the point where war seems inevitable, this latest incident may provide those nations opposed to Iran’s nuclear program with the excuse to band together and use force to end the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program once and for all. The sanctity of an embassy or consulate is an international principle of long standing for the last several hundred years, and the safety of such institutions and their staff was codified after WWII. An attack on an embassy or consulate can be interpreted as an act of war by most of the international community. But, with the official position of the Iranian government going against protesters, at least in the media, it’s anyone’s guess what, if any, action will be taken.