- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The attack on the UK embassy in Tehran (BBC) on November 28 reportedly by Iran’s Basij militia, a volunteer paramilitary wing, has led to heightened tensions between Iran and the West. The rampage, which was in protest over the UK’s new sanctions against Iranian banks, could not have taken place without the order or complicity of the Iranian government, says expert Robin Wright. She says the attack also signals a larger message of noncooperation from Iran’s government, including on its nuclear program, which has prompted increasing concern since an IAEA report in November.
What was behind this trashing of the British embassy, which has led to a virtual rupture in relations between UK and Iran?
The new tensions between Britain and Iran stem from Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the international community on its controversial nuclear program, which has triggered various countries to take joint and unilateral actions. On November 21, Britain put a ban on dealing with any Iranian banks, including the central bank. This was a move more sweeping than anything the United States has done on financial institutions. Iran responded in two ways. Its parliament pressed on November 27 to have relations downgraded and the British ambassador expelled. After the trashing of the British embassy on November 29, the British government took the unanticipated step of expelling Iranian diplomats and closing Iran’s mission in London, which is, again, further than any other country has gone.
These steps by the British are important because Britain was an important conduit for information between Iran and the United States. But Britain has long been a target of Iranian anger because of its own independent role in Iran over the past two centuries. And in many ways, there’s been longer antipathy toward Britain than even toward the United States.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a speech sharply attacking Britain, even before this trashing occurred, right?
Yes, the Iranian resentment toward Britain goes back a couple of centuries now, and it is not just the revolutionary leadership that shares suspicions of Britain’s motives. There are many Iranians who don’t like the Iranian regime but who also don’t look fondly on Britain. The same is true regarding Russia, because before World War II, Britain and Russia were major players in Iran.
This goes back more recently to the coup d’état in 1953, right?
Britain and the United States were responsible in 1953 for an intelligence operation that ousted a popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and that put the shah [Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi] back on the throne.
It is clear that the Iranian government either ordered or was complicit in the storming of the British embassy.
That was one of the most sensitive junctures in modern Iranian history. And many people feel that the British and American operation aborted an evolutionary political process, aimed at democratic openings that then forced a revolution in 1979.
How was this attack organized? Was it ordered by the Iranian government?
It is clear that the Iranian government either ordered or was complicit in the storming of the British embassy. Under the Vienna convention, every host government has to provide security and protection for all foreign diplomatic missions. From looking at the videos of the attack, it’s clear that the police did virtually nothing to stop the protesters from taking over not just one, but two British diplomatic offices simultaneously.
Coming thirty-two years after the takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979, it signals that nothing has changed, that this government is not prepared to cooperate with international treaties, to which it’s a signatory, whether it’s protection of diplomats or cooperation on its nuclear program. So there’s a bigger message here than simply what happened to the British government or the British embassy.
This comes a couple of weeks after the IAEA issued a damning report on Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program. Is this a sign that the leadership of Iran is saying to the West, "You can publish all the reports you want, but we’re going to do what we’re going to do?"
The IAEA report was the most damning yet because it provided specific evidence of military planning, but it only applies to Iran’s program until 2003. The specific evidence does not come from programs that can be proved to have continued since 2003. If you talk to the UN weapons inspectors, both current and past, the physicists who know the nuclear issue, they will point out that there is more to worry about than in the past, but we have to be careful about fully understanding what Iran is doing today.
Iran is thumbing its nose at the outside world with its failure to cooperate, despite repeated resolutions at the United Nations under both the Bush and the Obama administrations calling on it to do so. It’s also thumbing its nose at the international community in saying, "We are playing by our own rules, even on basic things like protection for diplomats," because they have to know that this will complicate all diplomacy on Iran in an attempt to find a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program.
Some analysts speculate that this underscores the split in the leadership between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei and his followers. What do you think?
The political divide in Iran has not been this deep since the early days after the revolution. This time it’s playing out among those in power, not between those who are out of power and those who are in power. This is playing out between conservatives and hardliners in the run-up to two pivotal elections, parliamentary elections in March 2012 and a presidential election in 2013, which is particularly important because Iran has a two-term limit on the presidency and Ahmadinejad cannot run again. So the stakes are who controls Iran next, and there are very different visions, even among the hardliners. The revolution is at a stage that it’s begun to eat itself up.
Explain that a bit more for people who don’t follow this, because Ahmadinejad has been portrayed as a real hardliner. On the other hand, he’s being portrayed as a bit of a softy by hardliners.
The deep divisions play out on a host of issues, and it’s not always logical to the outside world. For example, President Ahmadinejad has questioned the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist. But he also was the one who accepted a deal with the international community on Iran’s nuclear program in October 2009, only to find that the senior leadership--basically meaning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the inner circle--rejected it, and Iran had to back away from it.
[T]he stakes are who controls Iran next, and there are very different visions, even among the hardliners.
So the divisions play out on lots of different levels, including the economy, which is arguably the most divisive issue for Iran today. We focus on Iran’s foreign policy, but it’s the economy that is defining many of the debates. There are also debates over who should have power in Iran. Khamenei has suggested recently that the president should not be popularly elected, but elected by parliament, and this would change, effectively, the president’s powers and the people’s ability to influence political life.
People get confused because Khamenei got right in the middle of the disputed 2009 presidential election to ensure Ahmadinejad’s reelection.
Yes. In 2009, Khamenei put his political reputation on the line by backing the disputed reelection of Ahmadinejad, when millions were turning out on the streets to challenge what they thought was a fraudulent vote. Today however, just two years later, you see the supreme leader and the president with very different visions on a number of issues. And the supreme leader is even questioning whether the president should be popularly elected, in effect, diminishing the president’s power if it is indeed given to parliament to select, and effectively increasing his own power.
And the supreme leader is in charge of the Revolutionary Guards.
The supreme leader has control of defense policy, but also domestic policy, in that his office can question legislation, approve or disapprove of judicial appointments, and basically controls the National Security Council, which deals with a range of pivotal issues. The supreme leader is effectively an infallible political pope.
And there’s no question that the British embassy would not have been attacked if he had not given his approval?
I don’t know that for sure, but it is clear that someone in a position of authority over the Basij, over the Revolutionary Guards, had to have either ordered or been complicit, because this could not have happened without approval or encouragement by the government at some level.