Already confronting an unprecedented series of economic sanctions, Iran is facing further isolation over last week’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran. The closure of the embassy, and the consequent expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London, marks a dangerous escalation in Tehran-West tensions that could well extinguish any prospects for sustained and substantive dialogue over Iran’s nuclear program.
The Iranians, and those sympathetic to the assault, justified the siege by pointing to Britain’s increasingly aggressive diplomacy toward Tehran. Britain wasn’t only condemned for imposing unilateral sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank,and practically declaring an “economic war,” but it was also labeled as a “den of spies.” In light of the continued sabotage operations aimed at Iran’s military-nuclear facilities, and with a number of Iran’s top scientists having been assassinated, there has been lingering suspicion in Iran that British representatives might somehow have been complicit in the ongoing “shadow war” against the country.
And even setting such suspicions aside, Britain in a sense was a natural target for ultra-ideological Iranian elements. While Iran’s other two major nemeses – Israel and the United States – haven’t had a diplomatic presence in Iran for almost three decades, Britain chose to stay.
It’s not clear whether, despite the potential dangers, Britain really considered the possibility of such a backlash when it imposed a new set of tough sanctions, a move that caused particular disquiet among members of the Basij Student Organization. But the Iranian parliament’s swift response, namely calling for the expulsion of the British ambassador, should have been an indication of growing fury among influential voices in Iran.
Western countries, though, will no doubt interpret last week’s incident as another indication of Iran’s bellicosity and growing intransigence over its nuclear program. Iran was already under significant pressure following allegations the country – or at least elements within the security apparatus – were behind an alleged assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. These U.S. claims came shortly before the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report,which suggested that Iran may have been involved in nuclear warhead-related research activities.
So what is the immediate fallout from the past week’s incident and the subsequent Western response? Certainly, Russia’s call, echoed by China and other emerging powers, for so-called “step-by-step” diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program has been placed in serious jeopardy. But the embassy storming and British and European responses mean the West has lost another crucial channel of direct diplomatic communications with Iran. It’s precisely such a dearth of direct communication that has plagued Iran’s relations with major Western powers for decades. And with the Europeans following up with a new set of sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans, expect the downward spiral to continue.
But there’s another, even more complicated, dimension to the issue, namely the increasingly complex nature of Iran’s domestic political landscape. Given Iran’s history of fiercely competitive elections, especially since the 1997 presidential poll, the upcoming parliamentary election is sparking an intensified foreign policy debate among competing domestic factions. While there certainly appears to be a national consensus in support of Iran’s nuclear program, there are differing views over the best approach to relations with the West, specifically Britain and the United States.