Britain Closes Iranian Embassy

A day after the British embassy in Iran was trashed by protesters screaming “Death to England!”, the embassy has been officially closed, and all British diplomats have been withdrawn.  Not only that, Iran has been given 48 hours to clear its diplomats out of London.  From a New York Times report:

The measures were announced in Parliament by Foreign Secretary William Hague a day after Iranian protesters shouting “Death to England” stormed the British Embassy compound and a diplomatic residence in Tehran, tearing down the British flag, smashing windows, defacing walls and briefly detaining six staff members in what appeared to be a state-sponsored protest against Britain’s tough new economic sanctions against Iran.

The attack was the most serious diplomatic breach since the traumatic assault on the American Embassy after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Mr. Hague had initially expressed outrage over the attack, saying Britain held Iran’s government responsible and promising “other, further, and serious consequences.”

If your idea of “international diplomacy” involves driving other nations to shut down their embassies, and recall diplomats in fear of their lives, you’re doing it wrong.

Hague went on to describe diplomatic relations with Iran as floating “at their lowest level,” and not just with England.  Norway also closed its embassy, at least temporarily, citing security concerns. 

The Iranian government protests that it wasn’t behind the attack on the British embassy, which means they’re a little surprised that the lads got so carried away once they were over the fences.  They weren’t quite ready to take hostages yet.

Iran’s leaders, buffeted by the new sanctions, a collapsing economy and increasingly bitter infighting among the political elite, may have welcomed a chance to change the subject, analysts said. But the episode also appeared to be a shot across the bow aimed at the West, in line with Tehran’s old policies of escalating defiance.

“Khamenei’s philosophy is often to react to outside pressure with provocation, to imply that Western pressure will only further radicalize, not moderate, Iranian behavior,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Security forces initially stood by as students laboriously broke through the embassy’s massive main gate and then ransacked the offices, burning British flags and smashing pictures of Queen Elizabeth II. Only later did police officers in riot gear begin a somewhat lackadaisical effort to remove the protesters from the grounds, according to reports from state-supported Iranian news media and images broadcast on state television.

It’s tough for dungeon states to maintain civil international relations when their internal politics require periodic outbursts of psychotic behavior.  Incidentally, as the BBC notes, those lackadaisical security forces had plenty of time to shut down the assault, because the heavily fortified British embassy “is one of the most forbidding buildings in Iran’s capital.”  There are a lot of forbidding buildings in Iran’s capital.

Here’s the BBC chronicle of events that led up to this unfortunate bout of window-smashing and hostage-taking:

On 22 November Britain cut off all ties with Iran’s banks in response to report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme.

On 27 November Iran’s parliament voted to downgrade its diplomatic ties with the UK – in effect ordering the expulsion of Britain’s newly appointed Ambassador Dominick Chilcott.

At the same time, the anniversary of the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran approached.

Protesters announced they would hold a demonstration outside the British embassy on 29 November to mark the event. Iran says the West was responsible for Majid Shahriari’s assassination – Britain says it had nothing to do with it.

There was actually a second assault on British diplomatic soil, a “compound in northern Tehran known locally as Quolhak Garden”:

This 50-acre compound has plenty of symbolic importance for some conservative Iranians. They believe that Britain stole the grounds from Iran. One Iranian politician suggested some time ago that Britain could keep Qolhak Garden if Iran was given London’s Hyde Park.

After hearing news of the first incursions, the Foreign Office in London tried to contact its staff inside the two compounds. One initial call lasted 10 seconds and was ended by the words: “We’re being breached.”

Britain is promising further “serious consequences” for the Iranian government.  The Eurozone might not be in a very good position to dish out a lot of economic consequences at the moment, beyond what Iran is already dealing with, but we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.