Features | Politics | Central Asia

Time for West to Wise Up on Iran

Last week’s assault on the British Embassy was unacceptable. But more sanctions are only going to embolden Iran’s ideologues.

By Javad Heydarian for

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.

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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. 

On the one hand, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi seem to be interested in restarting talks with the West, with the Foreign Ministry having conveyed its interest in cooperating with relevant bodies in investigating the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. In addition, the Ministry was quick to condemn the “unacceptable behaviors,” of some groups, adding it was “committed to international regulations on the immunity and safety of diplomats and diplomatic places.”

At the same time, though, conservative factions, particularly Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, have recently stepped up their criticism of the West and the IAEA. Both are seen as potential candidates in the 2013 presidential elections and, with sanctions beginning to bite, and with many sections of Iranian society becoming increasingly disenchanted with the West, both men have appeared keen to cash. Larijani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, has for his part threatened to sever ties with the IAEA if certain conditions aren’t met, while the charismatic Ghalibaf has ramped up his rhetoric by vigorously pushing for a review of Britain’s ownership of the Gholhak Gardens diplomatic compound, in Iran’s wealthy northern neighborhoods.

All this suggests that imposing further sanctions – and escalating sabotage operations – is only likely to strengthen hawkish elements within Iran. If the West pushes too hard and too fast, there could be a complete collapse of nuclear negotiations, despite signs that Iran’s foreign policy establishment is seeking to minimize the fallout of the incident and rein in further acts of intransigence. Indeed, even as the British Embassy was stormed, authorities at the scene were quick to ensure that there was no chance of a repeat of the 1979 hostage crisis.

One of Iran’s most influential figures, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, isn’t alone in having expressed unease with the embassy siege, reportedly saying: “I explicitly say that I am against attacking embassies and occupying them…attacking an embassy and occupying it is like invading a country and is illegal.” Yet it’s difficult to see how clearly these voices will be heard as pressure grows from the hawks for Iran to thumb its nose at the West.

Russian and Chinese efforts to de-escalate a situation that risks spiraling out of control will be fascinating. But regardless of what they decide to do, the ball seems firmly in the West’s court. 

Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].