- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The storming of the British embassy in Tehran on Tuesday capped a week of diplomatic wrangling over the United Kingdom’s decision to slap new sanctions on Iran in response to its nuclear program. But while the scenes of protesters shattering embassy windows, burning British flags, and looting offices (and, improbably, Pulp Fiction posters) marks a new stage in the increasingly bitter standoff between Iran and the West, the images are also strikingly familiar.
In fact, embassy storming is a recurring phenomenon in Tehran, though Iran certainly isn’t the only country to experience such attacks. The most infamous incident, of course, involves young Islamic revolutionaries seizing the U.S. embassy in 1979 and taking 63 Americans hostage for 444 days to demand that the United States hand over the recently ousted Shah. But there are other examples. In 1987, Iranians attacked the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Iraqi, and French embassies in Tehran in response to deadly clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi policemen in Mecca and a dispute over an Iranian diplomat’s refusal to answer questions from French police. A year later, demonstrators pelted the Soviet embassy with stones and Molotov cocktails in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. In 2006, hundreds of protesters firebombed the Danish embassy and stoned the Austrian embassy (which held the rotating E.U. presidency at the time) after publications in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe ran cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Tehran also witnessed what may be the earliest instance of an embassy assault (if an earlier example comes to mind, please share it with us). In January 1829, Alexander Griboyedov, a famous Russian playwright tasked with imposing a humiliating peace treaty on the Persians, was murdered along with nearly his entire staff when a furious mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran following a series of disputes between Griboyedov and the Shah. In Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran, Laurence Kelly describes the final moments before the mob pounced:
After a lull of an hour-and-a-half, during which Griboyedov ordered his Cossacks to man the roof and bolt the doors, the mob appeared outside the embassy in far greater numbers than before. This time many of them carried firearms, the shopkeepers and ragamuffins of the earlier attack having been joined by groups of tribal mercenaries. For a moment, the mullahs held them back, despite the taunts of the Russian soldiers, who were drinking and gesturing on the roof; but an unlucky pistol shot from one of the Cossacks (whom Griboyedov had ordered not to fire) killed one of the crowd, a youth of about sixteen. The body was borne to the mosque, where the mullahs, urged on by the crowd, pronounced a jihad against the entire Russian mission.
This time around, the British Foreign Office is condemning the Iranian government for failing to protect British diplomats from what, according to the New York Times, "appeared to be an officially sanctioned protest." The Iranian government, meanwhile, is expressing "regret" over what it’s portraying as a spontaneous eruption of grassroots student rage, even as state-run news outlets run sympathetic headlines like "Iranian Students Voice Outrage over Britain’s Hostile Policies" (the Fars News Agency is referring to today’s unrest as "Occupy Embassy Protests" in an apparent nod to the Occupy Wall Street protests that the Iranian press has covered extensively).
Here’s some footage of today’s protest, via an Iranian opposition channel:
It appears no British diplomats were harmed during the mayhem, though the Fars News Agency claims six embassy staff members were briefly held hostage. The day’s events make clear that relations between Britain and Iran have sunk to their lowest point in decades. But when you compare the outcome to what unfolded in Tehran in January 1829, you get the sense that things could have been far worse.