The storming of the British Embassy in Tehran on Tuesday, and the subsequent diplomatic fallout, marks a serious deterioration in the ongoing standoff between Iran and the West and seems sure to set back further diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program.
Reminiscent of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, the protestors, many of whom were apparently members of the Basij militia, ransacked the diplomatic compound, tossed documents out the window, and tore down and set alight the British flag. Iranian security forces, ostensibly charged with restoring order and protecting the facility, stood idly by as the protestors overran the embassy. Their seemingly reluctant intervention after much of the damage had been done, points toward official approval of the event.
In a country where opposition protests are dispersed with brutal and immediate force, it seems highly unlikely that such a high-profile attack on the British Embassy could be allowed to proceed without the acquiescence of senior Iranian officials. The British government reached this conclusion, as stated by Foreign Secretary William Hague: “Iran is a country where opposition leaders are under house arrest, where more than 500 people have been executed so far this year, and where genuine protest is ruthlessly stamped on…The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy, or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent, is fanciful.”
In response to the attack, which appears to have been motivated by Britain’s decision to financially isolate Iran by cutting off links to the Iranian Central Bank, the British government ordered the closure of the embassy, evacuated its diplomats from Iran, and expelled all Iranian diplomats from London. Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and France also recalled their ambassadors for consultations in a display of unity. The embassy attack also figured prominently in a meeting of EU foreign ministers convened this week to discuss new sanctions on Iran. Although France had been pushing other EU member states to approve tough new measures banning Iranian oil and freezing the assets of the Iranian Central Bank, an agreement on an oil embargo failed as Greece, which relies on Iranian oil, raised objections. The ministers did agree, however, on implementing new sanctions targeting a broad swath of individuals, businesses, and groups in Iran. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe indicated efforts toward imposing an EU-wide oil embargo would continue and attempt to alleviate Greece’s concerns by locating other sources of supply. (Just yesterday, the U.S. Senate moved to apply further pressure on Iran’s Central Bank, passing by unanimous vote a measure that would punish other countries for dealing with the institution.)
The embassy attack, in conjunction with other recent actions by Tehran that preceded it, will only serve to further narrow the space for diplomacy and engagement with the West. Following the November 8th release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest safeguards report, which contained its most detailed findings to date suggesting past covert Iranian nuclear weapons research and development, Iran boycotted last week’s IAEA-sponsored talks for Middle Eastern states to discuss nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Then last Sunday, Iran officially downgraded relations with Britain and ordered the expulsion of the British ambassador from Tehran, in response to the stringent new sanctions that had been approved by Britain. Iran’s parliament moved quickly to pass a measure lowering diplomatic ties, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials publicly railed against the United Kingdom.
The European Union, the United States, and the United Nations (with the backing of even Russia and China, Iran’s traditional guardians in the Security Council) have all issued condemnations of the embassy attack. Cutting back diplomatic relations with Britain may also result in a downgrade in official ties with many other EU member states, closing more of the already limited diplomatic avenues available to Iran. The European diplomatic presence in Iran could have been used constructively to explore opportunities for expanded diplomacy and dialogue. Indeed, the Iranian-EU relationship has been a chief conduit for engagement over the nuclear issue. Iran instead seems committed to meeting international isolation with greater defiance. Of course, this reaction fits the pattern of the regime’s past responses to expanded pressure from the West, which typically rejects moderation in exchange for intransigence. Such a course will only heap greater opprobrium on Iran and limit its flexibility in dealing with its adversaries.
This latest, troubling episode is indicative of a broader dynamic of the showdown between Iran and the West: each side appears perilously trapped in a spiraling cycle of threats and escalation.
-These are the personal views of the author.