Iranian Students attack British Embassy

Persons portraying themselves as angry Iranian students occupied the yard and foyer of the British embassy in Tehran on Tuesday, as well as a smaller facility where six embassy employees appear briefly to have been taken hostage. The militant students (or possibly members of the Basij paramilitary) were protesting increased British financial sanctions on Iran, and Robin Pomeroy of Reuters suggests that they may have been supporting rightwingers in parliament against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Parliamentarians are pressuring Ahmadinejad to close the British embassy, but he has been reluctant to take that step.

Despite the cartoonish caricatures of Ahmadinejad in the US press, the president was revealed by wikileaks US cables to be more interested in compromise with the West and more open to decreased censorship than regime hardliners such as the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Aljazeera English has a video report:

An important context for this attack on the British embassy is a conspiracy theory mindset in Iran that blames the British for virtually everything that goes wrong in Iran. This theme in popular politics got started in the 19th century, when the British actually did intervene in Iran quite a lot (having regional interests because of British India, British clients in the Gulf, and petroleum, plus their rivalry with the Russian Empire to the north, which was often played out in Iran and Afghanistan).

Why exactly the conspiracy theory survives at a time when Britain is no longer an imperial power would be hard to explain. I backpacked around Iran decades ago and people frequently volunteered to me then that Britain was behind this or that development.

So those who attacked the British embassy did so in part because they believe that it is a counter-revolutionary espionage center dedicated to overthrowing the Islamic Republic and returning Iran to the status of a semi-colony. They read the new British financial sanctions in that light. It is true that British governments have often had rocky relations with the Islamic Republic since it was established in 1979, and it is also true that BP would love to get back into Iran and develop its petroleum and gas fields, which is only going to happen if the regime is overthrown. But Britain doesn’t have the assets in the country to attempt a full-blown counter-revolution, and it has been negotiating with Iran for years, so the full Conspiracy is not actually believable.

I’ve seen two arguments about the attack. One is that the attackers were Basij, not militant students, and that they were ordered to carry out this action by someone in the Iranian government. This scenario is entirely possible.

But it is also possible that militant students spearheaded the embassy invasion for their own purposes. Being a pro-regime militant student leader is after all a career path in revolutionary Iran. One big question: If the regime was behind it, why have police teargas them and try to break the rally up?

Either way, that hardliners of some description are pushing for the expulsion of the British ambassador seems clear. That such a step would not actually benefit Iran is also clear. As it is, some international forces are attempting to isolate that country and turn it into North Korea. The hardliners would be foolish to abet that process.

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13 Responses

  1. That such a step would not benefit Iran is very clear to educated Iranians. I remember talking to a sad American-Iranian at the carpet museum in Tehran who told me that every time he came for his annual visit, he always had to come alone because his American wife could get no visa. When I said, just wait and times will change, he pointed out that they had already been waiting for over 30 years.

    While this might be a sad individual case, it is typical for what people in the streets told me all over the country: we´re fed up with being isolated, we´re fed up with only being talked about in the Western world instead of being talked to. There are political resentments towards the US and Britain, but educated Iranians reject the US embassy affair and never want to see anything like this again. In the matter of “being talked about”, I feel with them, to their suspicions that there are double standards for Israel, I absolutely agree.
    (Of course, I don´t know what really is going on. But one country continuously has to prove that it´s innocent while the other one has to be caught in the act with a smoking gun to be found guilty. Iran is on the Internet, they have relatives abroad, and they´re not stupid.)

    One point that the “students” are Bassidj: All the women in the Al Jazeera video wear Tchadors. Of the female population of that age in Tehran, maybe 20-30% wear it nowadays, if at all. Certainly not the average educated urban young woman. If you are not used to wearing it (e.g. use it as a costume to make your point), you can´t climb boxes, wave your hands in the air or throw stones, you´re too busy holding it together with one hand.

  2. One big question: If the regime was behind it, why have police teargas them and try to break the rally up?

    They didn’t try very hard.

    My impression is that they were trying to make the attack on the embassy look sort of like an Arab Spring/OWS-type uprising, and the police were props to produce the correct effect for the cameras.

  3. It is ironic that the analysis came from Reuters, a family who was – as Robert Fisk points out in his latest article – deeply involved in the history of Anglo-Iranian relations/exploitation.

    While progressive voiced in Iran (and Iranians in exile) will understandably yearn for more openness, the state of Iran has much more historic and maybe also current reasons to distrust British foreign policy than the other way around, as the article amply documents.

  4. with all respects, these mob were basijies not students.
    Another theory: I think there are some people in Iranian regime that work for UK/US. They organized these kind of events in order to make problem for Iran

  5. “One big question: If the regime was behind it, why have police teargas them and try to break the rally up?”

    Why, indeed. Because the police allowed the initial group, who did all the damage, to enter the Embassy. They did nothing to stop them. It was only after a sufficient number had entered the Embassy to destroy it that the police went through the motions of attempting to rein in the remaining mob on the outside. That another mob entered the British compound and took six hostages argues for a coordinated effort.

    This is one more outrageous example of the Iranian Government failing to follow even the most elementary rules of international diplomacy. Host governments have the responsibility for protecting foreign diplomatic missions in their respective countries. Iran deliberately failed to do so in the case of the U.S. in 1979, and in the case of Britain yesterday. It is no excuse to cite as “context” some “conspiracy” theory that Britain is behind every “plot” against Iran. If the Iranians don’t want the British, they should break relations. If they do not want to break relations with Britain, they should observe their responsibilities under international law. As it is, they seem to want it both ways and do neither.

    And the tired old chant of the Embassy being a “den of spies” doesn’t wash either. Every country maintains intelligence officers in their Embassies abroad, including Iran. If the Iranians want to be treated as sophisticated players on the international scene, they should begin behaving accordingly.

    • One just has to love the subtlety and monopolarity and unidirectionality of “The Elementary Rules of International Diplomacy.”

      “If the Iranians want to be treated as sophisticated players on the international scene, they should begin behaving accordingly.” Or what, Bill? We’ll nuke ’em back to the Stone Age, as the Implacable Enemy du Jour? I mean, it ain’t like OUR “diplomacy” includes things like overthrowing elected governments and installing convenient appliances like Mohammad Reza Pahlavi? And then not being “sophisticated” enough to even do what it takes to keep a Ruler in place?

      Don’t worry. Nobody cares. Except the people who are getting rich and famous off our tribal stupidity.

      • Mossadegh was overthrown almost 60 years ago. The oil was nationalized years ago. The Shah was overthrown over 30 years ago. How long can regimes like this keep manipulating “ancient grievances” against the West to justify outlaw behavior?

      • “Nuke ’em back to the Stone Age,” JTMcPhee? Another of your non-sequiturs, I presume? Your rant reveals a lack of understanding of the benefit Iran would derive from adhering to international rules of diplomacy.

  6. “Other embassies may be closing in Iran according to Washington Post and I suspect this makes more likely a vote to shut off Iranian oil imports to the West. That could add to the regime’s economic woes.

    Excerpt from Washington Post:

    European ambassadors in Tehran had a long meeting Wednesday in which the options of withdrawing heads of missions and even closing all European embassies in Tehran were debated, said a European diplomat who asked to remain anonymous. One diplomat had visited the British Embassy grounds to search for the British ambassador’s dog, which was found. The diplomat said damage to the buildings was extreme.

    “The place had been systematically ransacked, paintings were destroyed and furniture was broken,” the diplomat said. “We have concluded that the attack had been extremely well coordinated by the authorities,” he said.

    Iran’s leaders apparently made a deliberate decision to allow groups of young men armed with sticks to pillage the diplomatic compounds Tuesday and briefly detain six embassy staffers.

    link to


    At Enduring America, an article identifies one high Basilj official and what appears to be a top IRCG Quds officer (Special Forces) involved in the demonstration. EA has circled their faces in red. You can clearly see a mullah is among the demonstrators. Toss in the encouragement of such attacks by Khamenei’s hard-line supporters in parliament, plus praise for it by so many top regime officials afterewards.

    This regime is going to be held accountable for outlaw behavior and it will be costly. A news outlet associated with Ahmadinejad has also praised the attack, indicating that–whatever arguments he may have on the mullahs–both factions are as “tight” on this one as they were on election day and afterwards.

    Like the recently disrupted attack in Washington, this is another bone-headed scheme by a hard line regime at the worst possible time. It’s as stupid as the blatantly rigged election. These thugs think they can get away with anything and people won’t notice.

    A MESSAGE TO IRAN’S CENSORS: Don’t worry about EA’s analysis of the photos. Even if you could filter them, they are all over the internet now and in the offices of many western governments. Everyone knows the Basilj are directly controlled by the Supreme Leader and couldn’t act without his permission. The same has been true when, dressed in plain clothes, Basilj and Hezbollah types beat up moderate clerics and trash their homes and mosques. Everyone knows who is the MAIN MAN behind it all.”

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  7. Does this mean Aghazedeh’s (privilged offsprings of IRI leadership) and IRI Officials can no longer obtain U.K citizenships? Does it mean they can not come to U.K and lecture people about non violence and civil society? does it mean they can not touch all the money they looted for the past 30 some years and now stored in U.K and European banks? seriously what is the impact of this action?

  8. As many folks have observed, including British foreign minister Hague, the attack could not occur if not approved at the highest level. So here it is:

    Mohammad Mohammadian, a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the attackers, saying they had targeted the “epicenter of sedition.”

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  9. Those who attacked the British Embassy in Tehran are NOT STUDENTS, but members of “Basij” (that is a vigilante army, supported directly by the government’s leader). If your press media are referring to them as students in, that’s because they want you to support your government to attack Iran. But please tell your people and your government (if you have the means to) that this is not what the people of Iran want, and this is not what they are.

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