Iranian Riots at British Embassy Portend Troubling Isolationism

Attacks on the British embassy in Tehran suggest that Iran is once again headed for the diplomatic deep freeze.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has changed a lot in the past 32 years--or has it? On Tuesday afternoon an enraged mob stormed the British Embassy compound in central Tehran, chanting “Death to England,” smashing windows, and burning the British flag. Video footage posted on several Iranian news sites showed bearded students hanging off the steel gates and tossing documents out from inside the compound. One young man held up a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and tried to hang it upside down on the outside of the gate. The scenes were all too reminiscent of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were taken hostage for 444 days, the beginning of Iran's diplomatic isolation that has lasted for more than three decades.

Six hostages were taken, at least temporarily, at a British residential complex in northern Tehran, according to the conservative Fars News website. It looks like Iran is headed for the diplomatic deep freeze yet again. And that's not good news for the West—or Iran. In recent years, the U.K. embassy had provided a key outlet for Iran's leaders to exchange information with their British counterparts on a host of critical issues, ranging from Iran's controversial nuclear program to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even though the Swiss embassy in Tehran deals with the official diplomatic business of the U.S., it was always assumed that messages passed on to diplomats at the U.K. embassy would find their way to American officials eventually.

If that line of communication is cut off, any crisis could quickly escalate. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps captured 15 British Navy personnel in the Persian Gulf in March 2007, claiming they had crossed into Iranian territorial waters. They were released two weeks later, largely due to the diplomatic two-step carried out by British Embassy officials in Tehran. If they hadn't been on the ground, the whole affair could have dragged out and gotten much messier.

The attack on the British Embassy on Tuesday afternoon wasn't entirely unexpected: relations between Iran and the U.K. have been steadily deteriorating since the political unrest in Iran in 2009. Some Iranian politicians had blamed the U.K. for playing a role in stoking the unrest, and there have been protests held outside the embassy in the past couple of years. But what may have pushed the crowd over the edge on Tuesday was a series of harsh sanctions adopted by Britain last week which demanded that all contacts with Iran's Central Bank be cut off. The Iranian parliament passed a bill on Sunday requiring the government to reduce diplomatic relations with the U.K. and kick out their ambassador within two weeks. Tuesday's attack also comes on the one-year anniversary of the assassination of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari in Tehran. Some Iranian officials had pointed the finger at the U.K. for playing a role in Shahriari's death, and some in the crowd on Tuesday carried pictures of Shahriari. “An attack on an embassy is like an attack on the soil of another country,” says Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former Iranian parliamentarian who is now a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “This is going to complicate the situation for Iran and set the country down a more difficult path.”

Iranian hardliners will likely see it as a symbolic victory. More than 30 years after the American hostages were released in 1981, Iranian hardliners still celebrate the day radical students took over the “den of spies,” the shorthand reference to the former U.S. Embassy among conservatives. From time to time, the Iranian government has even staged bizarre exhibitions on the former U.S. Embassy ground, which include carnival-like games where attendants can beat an Uncle Sam effigy on the head with a rubber mallet. If diplomatic relations keep deteriorating, an effigy of the queen may not be far behind.

The biggest question about Tuesday's attack is the degree of regime complicity in organizing the event. In the past, similar demonstrations at the U.K. embassy have mostly been organized by the Basij, a paramilitary youth organization overseen by the Revolutionary Guards. Flags, posters, and even placards with slogans have been handed out to attendees at some previous demonstrations. A statement issued by a student group claiming to represent the protesters on Tuesday said that the demonstration was “spontaneous” and did not have ties to any official bodies. And the foreign ministry issued a statement expressing regret about the attacks.

But there are signs of official endorsement even if there's not clear evidence yet of official complicity: conservative parliamentarian Hamid Rasai was among the crowds today. And shortly after the embassy attack, Mahmoud Ahmadibiqesh, a member of the Parliament's national-security committee, told the Khabar Online website, “England was under the illusion that they could defeat our revolution with their actions. But thank god, the brave action of the students in capturing the English den of spies showed them that they are deluded.” For some, there's already plenty of evidence of government involvement in Tuesday's attack. “This action was completely coordinated from the top. It started with the actions in Parliament,” says Haghighatjoo. “The intention was to send a message to England that if you put pressure on us, we're not going to back down.”

If that is the case, Iranian officials are playing diplomatic hardball at a particularly fraught time: not only are they under ramped up pressure from the West, but also their biggest regional ally, Syria, is on shaky ground, facing eight months of continuous antiregime protests. It may not be long before Iran’s hardliners may even begin to question who they’ve got left on their side.