In Wake of Attacks, Iran Is Isolated — and Divided?

by Max Watkins:

Last week, Iranian students stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, causing damage to property and personnel. Meanwhile, there was a simultaneous attack on a British facility on the outskirts of Tehran called Qolhak Garden. In response, the British withdrew their Ambassador from Iran and effectively shut down their embassy and all formal diplomatic relations with Iran. Norway soon followed suit, and other European nations are currently considering closing their embassies as well. Iran then withdrew all of its diplomats from the United Kingdom.

Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a statement on the storming of the British Embassy in Iran, an event which has severely damaged UK-Iran relations. (Foreign & Commonwealth Office/Flickr Creative Commons)

This serious breach of the Vienna Convention has its origins in the recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is continuing its attempts to acquire nuclear material, most likely for a nuclear weapon. This is an assertion that Iranian leaders vehemently deny; they state their intentions are for acquiring nuclear power. Regardless of Iran’s insistence, however, the United Kingdom, many other members of the European Union, and the United States have increased their economic sanctions on Iran.

Officially, the Iranian government claims it did not support or orchestrate these attacks. The Iranian Foreign Minister says that the attacks transpired “despite the efforts made by the Iranian Law Enforcement Police and reinforcement of the embassy guards.” However, there are two compelling reasons that make it difficult for Iran to continue claiming innocence. First, the circumstances suggest organization and cooperation: there were two separate yet simultaneous attacks on two different British compounds. Second, the Iranian government has no history of tolerating dissent. In fact, it has a tradition of military control over protests, especially when they involve students. Given the brutal military crackdown on the widespread protests that followed the presidential election of 2009, it seems at odds for the government to have allowed these students in 2011 to protest freely.

However, it should be noted that Iran does not have a fully united government, which complicates the question of responsibility and control. Iran’s political environment is divided into a religious faction led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a secular faction led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both sides retain their own militias and support groups; neither side necessarily assists the other. With this split in mind, the ability to assign blame for the recent attacks to the government as a whole is muddled. Instead, we could be seeing evidence of an internal Iranian power struggle.

Most disturbing is the way these attacks symbolize the failure of diplomacy as a means of engaging Iran and halting its nuclear ambitions. Up to this point, there had been a renewed push for opening a dialogue with Iran, a strategy championed by President Obama. But the attack on the British Embassy shows us that Iran is not ready to respect international norms and the Vienna Convention. The dire consequences of attacking a foreign embassy are certainly known. Take, for example, the attack on the American Embassy in 1979: as a result of those events, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran for 32 years, and it should be no surprise to Iran that other countries would respond in a similar fashion. British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that “the Iranian government must recognize that there will be serious consequences for failing to protect our staff” and that “we will consider what these measures should be in the coming days.”

Attempts at diplomacy and dialogue with Iran are not working. Now, we are likely to see a new era of dealing with Iran, one in which force and the military play dominant roles. Ironically, this more forceful approach could possibly accelerate Iran’s nuclear program, as Iran sees nuclear capabilities as a means to ensuring its security and sovereignty.

Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, writing about conflict in all its forms. Contact him at