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Attack On British Embassy Summons Memories Of 1979

November 29, 2011

by Golnaz Esfandiari

Fresh images of hardline students storming a foreign embassy in Tehran can't help but seem like a déja vu. It's even November, just like before.

Before, of course, was just after Iran's 1979 revolution when a group of young people calling themselves "students following of the line of Imam" (Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic) stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and ended up holding 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

What happened Tuesday in Tehran has inevitably been compared to the events of 32 years ago. But there are differences. The 1979 hostage crisis began spontaneously. What happened this week seems to have been a calculated move by hardliners in the regime.

In a statement, the young people who claimed responsibility for the November 29 attack on the British embassy called themselves "Muslim Student Followers of the Supreme Leader." They referred to the British embassy as "another nest of spies" and said the action is just one response to Britain's recent sanctioning of Iran's Central Bank, which they say represents a declaration of war.

A follow-up statement referred to the British Embassy as a "nest of plots" and accused it of having played a key role in organizing and provoking the 2009 post-election protests, which the government brutally supressed.

"Nest of spies" is the phrase heard often in the early years of the post-revolution period -- and is still used by some - to describe the U.S. Embassy, which was accused of spying on Iranians.

Whereas the 1979 students immediately took hostages in the U.S. Embassy, there is confusion over whether this group held six British embassy staffer hostage for several hours. Mehr news agency first reported that they had, but then removed the report from its website.

Later, the hardline Fars news agency said six embassy staff who had been under siege in the embassy during the attack were released by diplomatic police. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he wouldn't call the six "hostages."

The storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 led to the cutting of ties between the two governments and a deep distrust that continues to this day.

The consequences of the storming of the British Embassy are not clear yet, but the events have no doubt dealt a serious blow to diplomatic ties between the two countries. Prime Minister David Cameron has already warned of "further and serious consequences."

Tensions between London and Tehran have been rising in recent months over Iran's refusal to halt suspicious nuclear programs. A recent UN report concluding that Iran has worked to acquire a nuclear weapon led to a rare joint resolution by the P5+1 negotiating group -- Russia, China, the United States, France and the UK, along with Germany -- aimed at putting more pressure on Tehran.

The attack on the British Embassy appears to have been a reaction to this growing international pressure on the Islamic Republic, and follows a vote on November 27 in Iran's parliament, by a large majority, to downgrade diplomatic relations with the UK in response to its new sanctions.

The 1979 hostage taking was widely seen as a response to the United States' long-standing support for the deposed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and what the hostage takers perceived as Washington's attempts to undermine the revolution.

Observers believe the assault on the British Embassy could have not happened without the approval of senior officials. Since the 2009 post-election mass street demonstrations in Iran, and especially after this year's Arab uprisings, Iranian security forces have prevented any public protest from taking place. Protests without the backing of the state are therefore almost impossible to hold in the Islamic Republic.

The swift reaction from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which expressed regret over the move and called it "unacceptable behavior by a small number of protesters in spite of efforts by the police," suggests that some within the conservative Iranian establishment are trying to do damage control and prevent tensions from rising even further.

Conversely, the 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini who called it Iran's "second revolution."

The current leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, had not publicly reacted to the attack on the British Embassy hours after it ended. What he eventually says about it will be central to what the Islamic Republic does next vis-a-vis Britain.

One possibility may be that, as both international pressure and the government's internal power struggle reach new heights, the Iranian regime may be hoping that the international diplomatic crisis could generate popular support.

On social media sites following the attack, some Iranians close to the opposition movement were trying to distance themselves from the protesters. One person even wrote that the people who stormed the embassy belong to the same Basij forces that attacked the peaceful 2009 protests.

Ironically, the country that some 30 years ago coined the "Death to America" slogan is today thought to have the most pro-American population in the region.

It remains to be seen if and how the British Embassy attack will impact the sentiments of Iranians toward the UK.

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/british_embassy_attack_memories_1979/24406361.html

Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.



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