For Old Times’ Sake: Iranians Briefly Sack the Embassy of Their Once and Future Satan—Britain

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Iranian protesters gather outside the British embassy as some break into it and bring down the British flag (L) in Tehran on November 29, 2011. More than 20 Iranian protesters stormed the British embassy in Tehran, removing the mission's flag and ransacking offices. (Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)

For 18 nights in 1976, Iran was transported by the miniseries version of “My Uncle Napoleon,” a virtuosic comic novel about a Tehran household dominated by a conspiracy-minded paterfamilias who believes everything bad that happens to him is being arranged by the British.

On Tuesday, a mob overran the red brick compound on Ferdowzi Avenue that contains the Embassy of Great Britain, shattering windows, burning the Union Jack and fluttering documents out the windows. Iranian state television carried the episode live. Riot police who stood by as the students clambered over the nine-foot walls could be seen rushing to help the intruders ease themselves over on their way back. Farce is a rich vein in Persian literature fueled, as the wondrous Azar Nafisi put it in her review of the book version of My Uncle Napoleon, by “the conflict between what exists and what is imagined to exist…” Long before there was a Great Satan (America) or a Little Satan (Israel) there was Britain, the puppet master. The worst insult one Iranian can level at another Iranian, at least in the political realm, is to call someone “a Churchill.”

There are reasons for this. The CIA helped, but after all it was Britain that arranged the great bit of villainy of 1953, the coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the prime minister who had the temerity to nationalize British oilfields. The monarch the Western allies replaced him with would rule until the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power. And it was Great Britain that, along with the Soviets, invaded and occupied Iran during the Second World War, safeguarding petroleum supplies and land routes for the Eastern Front and casting a shadow over the nation’s politics that lingers to this day.

(PHOTOS: Iranian students storm the British embassy.)

Shadows are important in Iranian politics, dealing as heavily as it does in conspiracy and encouraging theories of same where possible. Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, wrote in The Guardian that the author Iraj Pezeshkzad “traced the origins of Uncle Napoleon’s character to his own childhood, when, listening to grown-ups, he was baffled by the way they indiscriminately labeled most politicians ‘British lackeys.’ This obsession was so pervasive that some Iranians even claimed Hitler was a British stooge and Germany’s bombing of London a nefarious plot hatched by British Intelligence.” A half century later, in his Last Will and Testament, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini warned from the grave of “British agents.”

So the nominal reason for Tuesday’s embassy takeover is nominal indeed. Iran is indeed piqued that the U.K. joined in a new round of sanctions intended to dissuade the Islamic Republic from continuing with its nuclear program. Its legislature, now totally dominated by hard-line conservatives, on Sunday passed a downgrade in diplomatic relations that will send the British ambassador packing. On Tuesday, the measure was rubber stamped by the Guardian Council, one of the appointed bodies with authority over the elected. The mob showed up on cue.

It’s usually all a bit routine. Mobs have been dutifully showing up to chant and chuck rocks at the embassy for decades now; the line of diplomats’ offices facing Ferdowsi typically features a broken pane or two. Typically it’s a desultory affair, almost always on a Friday and invariably conducted by the Basij, a kind of militia of the subsidized lower income faithful who turn up for free meals and occasional demonstrations. No one was at work inside, Friday being a day off, the ambassador’s breakfast patio lying well out of range.

For a British diplomat, the greater bother on such occasions would be the sedan parked outside the back gate. The unshaved men inside were with the Iranian security services, and sure to make themselves conspicuous as they tailed the foreigner on foot, or at walking pace from behind the wheel. Intimidation was the whole idea, although — unlike the Iranian nationals employed in the embassy, who were terribly vulnerable — the effect seldom reached beyond mild annoyance for accredited diplomats protected by the Vienna Convention.

But with the Americans long gone, there’s no one else for the Islamic Republic to toy with. This stark reality essentially assured that the half-dozen British diplomats reported taken hostage at one point in the day would turn up accounted for by day’s end. It also meant that when British Foreign Office declared itself “outraged by this” and the “incursion” “utterly unacceptable,” Iran’s foreign minister would tell Britain’s foreign secretary “he was sorry for what had happened and that action would be taken in response,” according to William Hague, the foreign secretary.

No one, least of all an Iranian government scrambling for attention, wants another empty diplomatic compound in downtown Tehran. There is already the problem of the U.S. embassy, famously overrun in 1979 and held for 444 days, with 52 Americans inside. It still stands on its handsomely wooded lot off Taleqani Avenue, the chancery building open daily to the public as “The Den of Espionage.” It’s a splendid museum. Among the highlights: a transparent plastic box, soundproof, and nearly the size of a room, with chairs around a table inside. The embassy apparently used it for meetings too sensitive to risk being eavesdropped upon.

Also on display are CIA cables that had been put through a shredder as the mob approached. The documents were plucked from the wastebasket and painstakingly re-assembled, shred by shred, by hostage-takers whose passion, or dedication, or mania, is very much on display…and itself qualifies as relic. “The Den of Espionage,” you see, doesn’t get many visitors. The day I showed myself around, a young sentry who wore the uniform of the Revolutionary Guard went on about how much he liked America and admired President George W. Bush. It was an entirely typical encounter with a young Iranian, and surely would have troubled any hardliner within earshot. But how much worse if the kid had been talking about Churchill?

Update:  British Foreign Secretary Hague announced on Wednesday that all Iranian diplomats were being ordered to leave the U.K. and the Iranian embassy in London shuttered,  but noted Britain was stopping short of severing relations with the Islamic Republic.  All British diplomats have been evacuated from Iran and the damaged embassy there closed.

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