Today’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran by hard-line Basiji militants (above) signals an escalation of the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the West.
“The incident raises the stakes to the point of very ill-disguised confrontation between Iran and one of the major players in the West,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The attack represents the regime’s response to the British government’s announcement that it was severing all ties with Iranian banks, including the Iranian Central Bank, in the most punitive sanctions yet against the Islamic Republic (more punishing than even Washington seems prepared to countenance).
“They want to send the message that the Europeans’ ratcheting up of pressure is not cost free and that Iran has the means to reciprocate,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The invasion also coincides with the launch of a UN investigation into human rights abuses in Iran. Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed announced that he will consult exiles living in France, Germany and Belgium after being denied permission to enter Iran.
“A visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran would have allowed me to gain better understanding of the situation,” Shaheed said.
“However I will now study a wide range of human rights issues by meeting activists within the Iranian diaspora, alleged victims of human rights violations, intergovernmental and civil society organizations,” he said.
The embassy invasion may also reflect internal divisions within the ruling elite and the regime’s need to burnish its radical credentials.
“Radicals in Iran and in the West are always in favor of crisis … Such radical hardliners in Iran will use the crisis to unite people and also to blame the crisis for the fading economy,” analyst Hasan Sedghi told Reuters.
Iran’s regional standing has deteriorated as a result of the Arab Awakening, with its Baathist ally in Syria under siege, while Hamas and Hizbollah, the other members of Iran’s axis of resistance, are similarly tarnished by their ambivalence towards the pro-democracy protests.
Tehran said that it “regrets” the assault on the embassy, but most observers believe the regime must have given the go-ahead.
“Clearly the protesters who broke into the embassy were doing so with full knowledge of the authorities,” according to Dr. Geoffrey Kemp, a former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council. “Since June 2009 the Iranian authorities have been particularly conscious of any civil uprising because of what happened when the Green Movement came into effect.”
The authorities deployed the Basiji militia (left) as shock-troops against the Green opposition and its cadres are known to be controlled by the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard (see Matthias Kuntzel’s essential analysis of the Basij’s origins, evolution and political orientation).
“The police and various ministries had prior knowledge of the protest, which was organized by the student arm of the Basij,” according to reports. “Any such action of this scale can never be independent in the Islamic Republic. These gatherings are always approved by higher officials.”
“The diplomats who have talked to us with courtesy up to now have in the past few days taken the masks away from their faces and are showing their true image,” said the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “And the most evil of them is the British government.”
It has been downhill ever since. The BBC’s Persian-language TV service, launched in 2009, is seen in Tehran as a government channel. The UK’s active role on the nuclear issue keeps it in the forefront of the regime’s hostility. Last week’s announcement that Britain had frozen $1.6bn of Iranian assets was the immediate trigger for the embassy attack.
Many ordinary Iranians have long entertained conspiracy theories about British influence, even to the extent of suggesting that London is the real power behind the Great Satan of the United States.
Such culturally ingrained suspicions are satirized in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon, arguably Iran’s most popular novel.
The author “traced the origins of Uncle Napoleon’s character to his own childhood, when, listening to grown-ups, he was baffled by the way they indiscriminately labeled most politicians ‘British lackeys,’” Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, has observed.* “This obsession was so pervasive that some Iranians even claimed Hitler was a British stooge and Germany’s bombing of London a nefarious plot hatched by British Intelligence.”
Iranian democracy activists and analysts recently called for the West to be more assertive in providing assistance to internal opposition forces. The West’s carrot-and-stick policy of incentives and disincentives to induce a change in behavior is fundamentally flawed, it is claimed, because it is based on a false assumption: that Iran’s leadership makes decisions on the basis of a rational cost-benefit calculus, the regime is ideologically-driven and incapable of compromise.
The embassy assault confirms the regime’s anxiety that tough new sanctions will inflict enough economic damage to undermine its political legitimacy and stability, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Roula Khalaf suggest:
Iran is no doubt worried about what might lie ahead. And, if a robust oil embargo ever becomes a reality, Tehran’s calculations could change.
Another Islamic Republic rule might then kick in: you alter your behaviour only when you are cornered and can no longer afford to go forward. This happened during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war when Tehran accepted a ceasefire to end the eight-year conflict in response to souring public opinion and a dramatic fall in oil prices.
*Azar Nafisi is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.