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Embassy Siege Sign of What’s Ahead?

The attack on the British Embassy in Iran was a troubling escalation. If the attack was ordered by the supreme leader’s son, it could be just the start.

The reaction to Tuesday’s storming of the British embassy in Tehran was swift. Within 24 hours, the British government had ordered the closure of Iran's embassy in London. Other EU countries joined in the condemnation, with countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands recalling their ambassadors, while Norway closed its embassy altogether.   

Tuesday’s incident signifies a new level of hostility by the Iranian government against the West, and Britain in particular. The attack took place soon after the Iranian parliament decided to downgrade relations with the U.K. over new financial sanctions imposed by the British government against Iran. The sanctions incensed Iran because they hit the regime – and especially the many corrupt politicians who have held bank accounts in London for years – where it hurts. An estimated $1.6 billion worth of these accounts, believed by the opposition to belong to the family of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were closed soon after the 2009 post-election crackdowns in Iran. Others were closed later, much to the fury of Iran's rulers. It’s likely that the new sanctions will put even more Iranian politicians out of pocket.

But it’s not just about the money – BBC Persian is another source of contention. The BBC's Persian language service has for years been the most credible source of news for many Iranians inside and outside the country. Even Ayatollah Khomeini listened to its programs before and immediately after coming to power in 1979. But the Iranian regime has been infuriated by reports about corruption and human rights abuses in Iran, especially since the 2009 elections, and has done everything in its power to stop its broadcasts, including jamming its satellite and arresting anyone who worked with the station inside Iran.

Yet while there are some clear potential motivations for the attack, a perhaps more interesting question is who was behind it.

On this question, it seems almost certain that the attack was sanctioned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). According to Iran's power structure, Khamenei gives the orders to the IRGC, which in turn controls the Basij militia that many analysts believe stormed the embassy. Basij members don't simply turn up to attack embassies on a whim – they need permission and operational parameters from the IRGC. They realize that crossing certain lines could mean severe punishment (possibly torture) and almost certainly the loss of their financial privileges, which for many are the main reason why they join in the first place.

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Still, even if Khamenei ultimately gave the green light to the attacks, they showed a level of hostility that is unprecedented, even for the supreme leader. So, while it’s certainly possible that he has become even more hardline, there’s also another possibility that has generally been overlooked – has Khamenei, as part of a plan to groom his son Mojtaba as his successor, transferred some of his authority to his son? And if so, could this explain this dramatic escalation?

Mojtaba has certainly been known to be close to the Basij. Indeed, it was reported by The Guardian's sources inside Iran that he was placed in charge of the organization during the 2009 post-election disturbances. And Mojtaba is also believed to be even more of a hardliner than his father, meaning his views would dovetail well with the Basij and more right wing elements of the IRGC who favor a tougher approach to the West.

Why is there such resistance to closer ties with the West among certain quarters? One obvious reason is that better relations could mean more economic and political influence for Western nations inside Iran. Hardliners in Iran want the opposite, so that they can consolidate their economic and political interests. Mojtaba’s closeness to senior members of the Basij may well have influenced his thinking and, if he really was in control, his decision to up the ante.

Tuesday’s attack bears the hallmarks of the Basij mentality, one which favors the brutal use of force and frontal assaults as its main modus operandi. This is in contrast to the IRGC, which prefers cloak and dagger methods before resorting to direct attacks. With this in mind, it seems plausible that the operational primitiveness of the alleged plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was more likely to have been directed by Mojtaba Khamenei than by his father.

The fact that Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has reportedly thrown his support behind the embassy attack could be another sign of Mojaba’s emergence. It’s true that over the years, Larijani has been relatively moderate on relations with the West. His sudden support for this tougher line, then, could reflect a realization that the recent attack were devised by Mojtaba, and he could therefore be keen to seal his place in any future Mojtaba government.

Regardless of whether Ali or Mojtaba Khamenei was in charge, the attack on the British Embassy makes the job of talking with Iran that much more difficult, and will only embolden those calling for additional sanctions and the isolation of the regime. Notwithstanding Iran's illegal nuclear activities, which have prompted the ire of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the embassy attack is on its own enough justification for the international community to punish the Iranian government, both politically and financially. 

But setting aside the immediate response to this week’s attack, the incident should give the West even more pause for thought. If Mojtaba Khamenei really was behind the attack, and if talk of Ali Khamenei transferring more power to him is proven to be true, then the international community has real reason to worry because an Iran with Mojtaba Khamenei as supreme leader is going to be even more militant and difficult to deal with.

It’s a sobering thought.