History repeats in Iran embassy seizure

Article Highlights

  • There are similarities between seizure of US embassy in '79 and attack on British embassy. Is history repeating itself?

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  • Once again the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be an immature and irresponsible country.

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  • The mature and responsible regimes of the world should close their embassies in Tehran to teach the regime a lesson.

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Today, several hundred militant students attacked the British embassy compound in Tehran, removed the British flag, burned it, and replaced it with Iran’s flag. According to Mehr News, the embassy staff fled through the back door while the students were busy burning framed photos of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill in the embassy garden. The protesters also allegedly crushed a statue of the late Shah of Iran while chanting “Death to the Shah!” Law Enforcement Forces managed to clear the protesters away from the embassy compound, but according to IRNA a second wave of attacks managed to break through the police lines and seize the embassy.

"The mature and responsible regimes of the world should close their embassies in Tehran to teach the regime a lesson." --Ali AlfonehThe students attempting to capture the British embassy subsequently released a statement in which they stress that “seizure of the British embassy has taken place with 33 years of delay… the embassy of the Old Fox should have been seized earlier.” The statement also maintains that the attack was “conducted by revolutionary students,” and that the move had “not been ordered by any organization or institution.”

However, all evidence points to the contrary.

On November 21, the British government imposed new sanctions against Iranian financial institutions, including the Central Bank. The Iranian parliament countered this move by calling for a downgrade in diplomatic relations with Britain. Two days ago, Fars News Agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), ran an editorial titled “Is the British Embassy any different than the United States Den of Espionage?” and yesterday leaders of the Student Basij, a component of the IRGC, openly announced that “students will soon seize the embassy of the Old Fox.”

Interestingly, prior to the attack. Basij leaders called the impending seizure of the British embassy the “third revolution.” In official Islamic Republic parlance, the “first revolution” refers to the revolution of 1979, which removed the Shah from power, while the “second revolution” refers to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus, the Basij is trying to depict its attack against the British embassy as another turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic.

There are some similarities between the seizure of the U.S. embassy and the attack against the British embassy, and history indeed seems to be repeating itself. However, the repetition seems to be “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Embracing the seizure of the embassy and hostage taking in 1979, Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini systematically used documents taken from the embassy to purge moderate elements within the revolutionary elites whom the hardliners accused of being American spies. In this way, Khomeini managed to consolidate his power in Iran. However, the hostage affair also resulted in Iran’s diplomatic isolation, which paved the way for Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980.

As darkness sinks over Tehran, the Law Enforcement Forces seem to have the embassy compound under control. The regime may believe that the orchestrated attack has intimidated the British government and demonstrated its strength to the Iranian public. The British government and the European Union should convince the regime that it is wrong. Once again the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be an immature and irresponsible country. In response, the mature and responsible regimes of the world should close their embassies in Tehran to teach the regime a lesson.

Ali Alfoneh is a resident fellow at AEI

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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