Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The Islamic Republic’s Warning to the West
Yesterday, dozens of young Iranian men surged past police into the British Embassy complex in Tehran, smashing windows, hurling Molotov cocktails, and tossing documents from windows. The British flag was burned and the Iranian flag was raised in its place. The embassy was also looted and a car was burned outside. The riot occurred two days after the Iranian parliament voted to reduce diplomatic relations with Britain, who supported upgraded sanctions against Iran for its continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons. At a time of incredibly high tensions in the Middle East, the last thing the region needed was a re-enactment of the 1979 US embassy takeover, the emblematic point of breakdown in relations between the fanatical Iranian regime and the West. The British Foreign Office denounced the melee, noting that Iran has a “clear duty” under international law to protect diplomats and offices. The Obama administration joined Britain as well as other members of the European Union in denouncing the violence. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made the usual toothless condemnations, “in the strongest terms,” of course, and reiterated the British demand that “Iran has a responsibility to protect the diplomatic missions present in its country and the personnel stationed at them.”
The storming of the embassy by regime supporters was a tenacious effort. Police cleared the demonstrators in front of the main embassy, but later clashed with protesters a second time, using tear gas to disperse the mob after protesters once again gained entry to the compound, according to Fars news agency in Iran. Another Iranian news report said six embassy staff members had been held hostage for a short time. British Foreign Secretary William Hague threatened, “Clearly there will be other, further, and serious consequences.”
An Iranian official who declined to be identified told Reuters the government had no role in the uprising. “It was not an organized measure. The establishment had no role in it. It was not planned,” he claimed. The assertion is almost impossible to take seriously. The UK has become a major target of government officials in recent days, with one assembly member publicly saying the country was “worse than the devil” and calling for the ambassador’s expulsion. Only days before the attack, the same politician also exhorted the Iranian people to take action: “The British government should know that if they insist on their evil stances, the Iranian people will punch them in the month, exactly as happened against America’s den of spies.” Al-Jazeera reporter Dorsa Jabbari claimed the police and various ministries had prior knowledge of the protest, organized by the student arm of the Basij armed group, Khomeini’s foot soldiers. “Any such action of this scale can never be independent in the Islamic Republic,” he said. “These gatherings are always approved by higher officials.”
Giving weight to Jabbari’s assessment was the fact that Sardar Mohamad Reza Naghdi, the commander of the Basij, appeared on state television on Sunday night. He claimed his group was “counting the moments” until it could conduct a strike against “Zionist forces.” Sunday was also the day the Iranian parliament voted to expel the British ambassador. A majority of the 179 lawmakers were in favor of reducing relations to the level of “charge d’affaires” within two weeks. They also approved reducing economic relations with Britain “to a minimum” and raised the possibility that other nations would be subjected to the same punishment if they behaved in the same manner. “This bill is only the beginning,” warned lawmaker Ali Larijani, speaking on behalf of the parliament. The bill required the approval of Iran’s Guardians Council before taking effect. They unanimously endorsed it Monday.
Interestingly, the vote represented a rift between some lawmakers and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While his government remains steadfast in its refusal to halt its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad was hoping to exploit diplomatic channels to mitigate the worst effects of the sanctions. But with the vote, this possibility was lost, a development that comes as no surprise to political analyst Hasan Sedghi. No matter the consequences of further sanctions, “radical hardliners in Iran will use the crisis to unite people and also to blame the crisis for the fading economy,” he said.
Channeling internal unrest into unified hatred of the West was certainly an aspect of the British embassy storming. The protesters carried placards showing pictures of Majid Shahriari, an assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist, and Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Qods Force. Shahriari, reportedly involved in a “major project with Iran’s nuclear agency,” was killed a year ago on his way to work in one of two bomb attacks that also wounded scientist Fereidoun Abbasi. Other Iranian nuclear scientists have also been killed. In 2007, Ardeshir Hosseinpour was poisoned. In January of 2010, professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a senior physics professor at Tehran University, was killed by a bomb. Iran accused the West and Israel of carrying out the attacks, and they have been a lightning rod among the regimes throngs of supporters.
As for Suleimani, he is a hard-core terrorist, perhaps responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and British troops, according to American diplomatic cables. A consolidation of power by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps may lead to Suleimani’s ascension to the presidency after Ahmadinejad finishes his second and final term. Thus, the attack on the embassy may reflect a flexing of hard-line political muscle.
Yet assuming the uprising was orchestrated, why now in particular? The most likely reason is that the British imposed the harshest sanctions on Iran of any nation, the most onerous of which is the requirement that all contacts with the Iranian Central Bank be severed. If other nations adopted the same tactics, Iran’s ability to process it’s $90 billion worth of oil and gas sales would be seriously compromised.
The upside? Funding for the Iranian government, including the military, and possibly their nuclear development program, would be severely hindered. The downside? Chaos on the world oil market, engendering sky-high prices of perhaps $150 per barrel, damaging already fragile hopes for an economic recovery in both the U.S. and Europe.
Moreover, a multi-nation sanction of Iran’s Central Bank represents the last diplomatic card the West can play. After that, the real possibility of a military strike moves to the fore. The Iranians undoubtedly recognize the level of their vulnerability and seek to mitigate it the best way the know how: by adopting more aggressive posture reminiscent of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. That too was carried out by radical students who took hostages. 52 Americans were held for 444 days.
Thus, the Iranians are sending the British an unsubtle message. It was a message compounded by the fact that another group of Iranians broke into a second British compound at Qolhak in north Tehran, where demonstrators seized what state IRNA news agency called “classified documents.” No doubt another manufactured “crisis” to “unite the people.”
It remains to be seen exactly what “serious consequences” Britain intends to carry out. What ever they do, nothing, short of regime change is likely to alter Iran’s inexorable determination to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite all the other upheaval in the world, Iranian intransigence and fanaticism remains a dangerous constant. One that may soon make all those other upheavals look trivial by comparison.