Popular outrage in Iran and other majority Shi‘ite states like Bahrain might be understandable given Saudi Arabia’s murder of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken preacher who peacefully stood up for local Shi‘ites against the bigotry at the heart of the Saudi state.
The idea, however, that the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran was spontaneous is nonsense: The Iranian government does not allow spontaneous mobs to run amok because of the realization that when Iranians take to the streets to dispense justice, it will not be long before they turn on their own government. Indeed, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), paramilitary Basij, and Law Enforcement Forces drill regularly on crowd control.
The simple fact is that the Iranian regime has not come in from the cold nor altered its character. The Islamic Republic does not accept the norms of diplomacy including the sanctity of embassies. Consider its history:
- On November 4, 1979, students answering to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Iranian authorities continued to increase their demands for diplomatic and financial concessions in direct proportion to the seeming desperation of the Carter administration to continue dialogue.
- On April 11, 1997, angered by a German court verdict implicating the Iranian government in the assassination of dissidents in Berlin five years previously, approximately 1,000 Ansar-e Hezbollah activists — hardline vigilantes associated with the IRGC — gathered in front of the German embassy in Tehran. Hossein Allah-Karam, the head of the group, warned, “One of our followers will strap a bomb to himself and blow up the embassy if Germany continues its accusations and hostile attitude against our leaders.” Three days later, a group of 250 students clashed with police in front of the embassy. The students issued a statement warning, “If ever the guide [Khamenei] orders us, we will wage a holy war against the infidels … We are conquerors of spy nests,” a reference to the U.S. embassy.” Iranian authorities promised to protect the embassy. German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel noted wryly, “Since suicide commandos only seem to act on orders from the government … we will take the Iranian government at its word.”
- On February 7, 2006, approximately 20 Iranian protestors attempted to storm the Danish embassy in Tehran in protest of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
- On November 29, 2011, a mob protesting British support for sanctions against Iran attacked the British embassy in Tehran, setting alight a small building on its grounds and injuring several people.
Beyond these incidents have been Iranian attacks on foreign embassies abroad. In 1983, Iranian-backed terrorists attacked the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and shortly thereafter attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, and in 1992, Iranian agents bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was during the Clinton administration that the term ‘rogue regime’ came into vogue. Administration officials loosely defined rogue regimes as states that did not abide by the norms of diplomacy, engaged in terrorism and/or nuclear proliferation and were not easily deterred. No matter how high emotions may be or anger at a foreign state, it is the responsibility of the host government to protect embassies and diplomats on its soil. That Iran does not do so suggests that the core ideology and practice of the Islamic Republic has not changed over the past 37 years.
Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia should be condemned for the murder of Sheikh Nimr, but that is no excuse for the violation of the Saudi embassy. Those who set fire to the embassy should be imprisoned for arson and responsible for the damage they caused, as should the security forces that encouraged the assault if not participated in it. The simple fact is that until Iran is compelled to respect foreign embassies, then no responsible country should maintain an embassy on Iranian soil. Only when Tehran realizes that rogue behavior wins no advantage and brings only isolation, might it begin to act like a civilized government. Conversely, to take no international collective action against the repeated and systematic violation of embassies by Iran or any other state is a guarantee that other regimes and groups will begin to consider it open season on embassies. At stake is not simply the embassy of one odious regime in the capital of another, but the understanding of the sanctity of diplomacy and diplomats dating back two hundred years.