Britain evacuates its diplomats from Iran; Norway shuts embassy

The Christian Science MonitorNovember 30, 2011 

BAGHDAD — One day after the sacking of its embassy in Tehran by pro-regime Iranian militants, Britain on Wednesday evacuated all its diplomats from Iran, closed its embassy, and ordered the expulsion of all Iranian diplomats from London within 48 hours.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament the attack was a "grave violation" of diplomatic convention in a speech delivered moments after the last British diplomat had left Iran. Norway also shut its embassy and Germany announced that it was recalling its ambassador amid reports that other European nations may follow suit.

The developments were the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter clash between the Islamic Republic — burdened by an increasing array of sanctions over its nuclear program — and the West.

On Tuesday, dozens of basiji, as members of the pro-regime political militia are called, stormed the embassy, tore down and burn British flags, and carted away the cast-iron coat of arms featuring two lions.

On Wednesday, a statement published in the name of hundreds of "student" protesters by the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard force, declared that such actions would continue.

Fars also reported that police used tear gas to clear the embassy, and arrested a dozen protesters at the embassy's residential garden compound further north in Tehran.

"The revolutionary students' move today and occupation of the Old Fox's Den of Plots [British Embassy] was only a meager response to this declaration of war and Britain should wait for the coming moves of the great Iranian nation who intends to settle an old score for years of plotting [against Iran]," the statement read.

Persian-language news websites identified in photographs some of the protesters as leaders of the Basij militia, which is commanded by the Guard, and the Guard's Qods Force, which handles Iranian military and covert actions abroad.

Neither Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose respective supporters have been locked in political battle since last spring, have yet spoken about the events. But Ayatollah Khamenei's representative to the universities said students had proven that "they found the center of sedition," an indication that Khamenei supported the action.

"An attack like that could not have happened unless it was approved quite high up," said Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. "I don't know what level it was on, because we haven't heard yet from Khamenei, but it must have come from a high source."

The latest spark was London's recent decision to target Iran's central bank with sanctions aimed at halting Iran's nuclear work, which the U.S., Britain, and Israel believe is aimed at making a bomb.

But Iran's anger at Britain — beyond historical grudges that stretch back centuries, dates to the 2009 presidential election, when millions of Iranians took to the street to protest the declared reelection of Ahmadinejad, only to be crushed.

Among Iran's foreign enemies, which include the U.S. and Israel, Britain was singled out then for being the most determined to overthrow the regime.

"Pressure has been mounting on the relationship between Iran and the UK over the past two years, triggered by the 2009 post-election protest, which was widely reported by the newly set-up BBC Persian TV, which the Iranian government described as a 'soft war' on Iran," Torfeh said.

The new British sanctions aimed at Iran's central bank added to the anger since they strike directly at the Revolutionary Guard, the main engine of Iran's economy, she said.

Ahmadinejad admitted to parliament in recent weeks that Iran was facing "the biggest offensive in history." "All our purchases and sales, all our agreements are being monitored and blocked," he said.

The attack on the embassy, which took place as the basijis and other militants were marking the anniversary of the assassination of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, revealed a broader issue about the internal political fight in Iran.

"It illustrates their frustration with the sanctions regime," Torfeh said.

Iran watcher Scott Lucas on his EAWorldview website suggested that Iran's actions stemmed from a position of weakness. He said a combination of factors, economic problems, a spate of recent unexplained explosions at military and industrial facilities, and a report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency that details past weapons-related projects, prompted the "regime ... to hit back."

He said Iran could be using the prospect of military confrontation to help them mask economic problems and political infighting.

Iran's decision earlier this week to expel the British ambassador, after just one month on the job, was a "very big mistake," Torfeh said.

"The British ambassador was one of the high-ranking diplomats who was actually in Tehran. He could have been used by the [Iranian regime] as a way of resolving the problems with the West. Instead now ... they have set themselves up against the rest of the world, and made themselves far more isolated."

(McClatchy and The Christian Science Monitor operate a joint news bureau in Baghdad.)

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