Iran Special Analysis: More Than a Game — 6 Points About the Attack on the British Embassy

Protester Carries Picture of The Queen1. WHY DID THE IRANIAN REGIME PLAY THIS GAME?

Let’s start with two points: 1) the regime almost certainly had an important connection with Tuesday’s demonstration and attack on the British Embassy; 2) it supported that display of force not from strength, but from weakness.

For months, Iranian officials and media have been reacting to Western pressure with tough talk — every day, we feature proclamations of the latest weapons system, cyber-offensive, and mobilisation of the Basij militia and the Iranian people.

Britain has a special place in that rhetoric: the historical villain of the oppression of Iran, London is attacked not only for its wing-man role to the US but also for the weaknesses of its economy, politics, and society. While America gets more than its share of criticism, of course, Britain is the bull’s-eye target for pressure — Iranian officials perceive that it cannot fight back with the force of a US punch, and there is the hope, probably forlorn, that the UK and Europe can be put at some distance from Washington if pressure is applied.

In recent weeks, and especially since the publication of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear programme, the regime campaign has escalated. The Islamic Republic is already in a serious — possibly precarious — economic position, and the last two weeks have brought a ratcheting-up of sanctions by the US, Britain, France, and Germany, with the prospect of European Union restrictions on imports of oil from Tehran.

Add to this the series of explosions besetting Iran’s infrastructure and military bases, notably the strike on the Revolutionary Guards base on 12 November and the blast in Isfahan on Monday. Unless the regime’s leaders are blowing up their own facilities as a pretext for a tough stance towards the „enemy“, somebody — the US, Israel, opponents within Iran, a faction within the establishment — is striking at the heart of the regime’s authority. And that could be an unsettling, frightening prospect.

So, in the spirit of „the best defence is a good offence“, the regime decided to hit back. This was a most un-spontaneous „spontaneous“ demonstration. Beyond the rhetoric, Parliament passed the measure to downgrade relations with Britain on Sunday, with Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and other key MPs saying that this was only the beginning.

On Monday a new group, the „Avengers of Scientific Martyrs“, announced a demonstration for the next day, with the Iranian media piling on the charge that the British Embassy was a „Nest of Spies“, just like the US Embassy taken over in 1979. The British Foreign Office saw that the whistle for the game was about to blow: it asked Iranian authorities to ensure the protect of the Embassy compound.

2. WHO IS THE MANAGER OF THE IRANIAN TEAM?

But assuming that „students“ did not come up with the plan to demonstrate — or assuming they did but needed a green light to proceed — who in the regime signalled that the protest could not only go ahead but go beyond previous rallies by moving into the Embassy buildings?

Great question. Take your pick of the agencies within the Islamic Republic’s bureaucracy. At the level of „security“, consider the police, the Basij militia, the military, the Revolutionary Guards. At the political level, look at the President’s camp, key MPs including Speaker Larijani, and of course the Supreme Leader’s office.

About the only assurance that can be given is that the Foreign Ministry were not giving the starting orders — their statements last night tipped off their dismay at the events. Beyond that, in the absence of anyone in the regime raising a hand, clues have to be gathered from what happened during and after the occupation.

(Can’t wait for answers? Jump to Point 4.)

3. IN GAMES, RULES GET BROKEN

What gave this game an extra dimension was the attitude of protesters once they got inside the Embassy compound. Here is where „spontaneous“ is the appropriate word. Watching their actions and those of security forces, it appears that the occupiers took the initiative in trying to turn an arranged — and controlled — jab at the British into a more serious demonstration of intent.

My perception is that the plan was for the protesters to race around the two buildings of the Embassy for an hour or so, tear up documents and photograph others, lift the picture of the Queen from the wall, replace the Union Jack with the Islamic Republic’s flag, and then leave in triumph. But the script got changed: 1) six employees of the Embassy were still inside and thus „held“ by the demonstrators; 2) the protesters did not want to leave.

The first issue was soon resolved, as the employees were escorted off the grounds by diplomatic police. The second was far more difficult. Protesters inside would not budge, despite the police’s insistence; protesters outside the Embassy would not disperse. Tear gas was reportedly used to shift the occupiers, but they apparently returned on two more occasions. Iranian media report this morning that 12-15 were arrested.

Despite some overblown reports in international media, this was not close to a repetition of the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy, but it did demonstrate that even a carefully-arranged plan for a „spontaneous“ protest can get out of hand.

4. IN GAMES, NOT EVERYONE IS ON THE SAME GROUND

But what if not everyone within the regime was of the same opinion regarding the plan? Leaving aside ineffectual actors like the Foreign Ministry, there are a lot of factions with different stakes in yesterday’s events.

The Basij militia, whipped up by the rhetoric of Iran’s leaders during Basij Week this month, were certainly spoiling for a confrontation, and their presence yesterday in the protests raised the possibility of confrontation. On the other hand, the Basij — in terms of decision-making — do not occupy the prime seat, so others are likely to have made the judgement call on how far to demonstrate.

Coming from a different direction, the Iranian national police by the end of yesterday found themselves in the embarrassing position that they could not enforce the required measure of security. So both the Deputy Police Chief found himself going to the Embassy and giving the assurance that culprits would be prosecuted, while his boss assured the British Ambassador that safety would be guaranteed.

The Supreme Leader’s office was unlikely to give any clue to their position, and President Ahmadinejad and his advisors also maintained silence. However, the coverage of Fars, which is often linked with the Revolutionary Guards, offered much for consideration. From the start of the demonstration to the confusion in the Embassy to this morning’s aftermath, the website has had the „breaking“ news. Initially, the tone of that news was support for the protests, but as the afternoon developed, the articles began to jab at the excesses of the occupiers. It was Fars, for example, that got out the assurance that the six Embassy employees had been released, and the publication has also led with the reports that demonstrators were arrested.

Admitting that much at this point is speculative, that points to the Guards trying to broker a tricky situation as the protesters went off-script. Perhaps more importantly, that balancing act continued last night and this morning, now with the involvement of politicians. Leading MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi put out the message, even as he supported the protests, that other Embassies would not be targeted. Speaker of Parliament Larijani, perhaps the foremost actor to break cover, has called for calm and order while avoiding any criticism of the demonstrators.

This, however, does not mean a unified position. The Foreign Ministry continues to sulk, as its Minister is chastised by his British counterpart. Alef, the outlet of prominent MP Ahmad Tavakoli, in contrast to the endorsement offered by other legislators, has condemned the occupation. And the assurances of the national police to the British have to be seen as a partial correction to the intended display of force.

5. WHAT’S THE NEXT GAME?

Even as we look for clues about this contest from the most important players in Iran, the question of what is next arises.

In the near-future, this may turn not on Tehran but on London — and, behind London, the US. While the regime assesses and regroups, Britain has the option of either ratcheting up the contest or being cautious and avoiding further confrontation.

This morning the Foreign Office has taken the holding step of announcing the withdrawal of „some staff“ from the Embassy. I think is unlikely, however, that we will see much more beyond tut-tutting. Britain’s primary move still lies in the co-ordinated push on sanctions with the US and other European countries, and there is nothing in yesterday’s developments to deflect London from that course.

If Britain and Washington refrain from more than this, then the ball goes back into the Iranian regime’s court — can it throw another jab at the „West“? And here I am at a loss: given the fragile state of Tehran’s economy, the political in-fighting, and a weaker position in the Middle East than last year, the possibilities beyond rhetoric seem very limited.

6. THE FINAL GAME?

But maybe I am missing something. EA colleagues raise two alternatives.

There is the alternative of the Final Game. Are there elements within the Iranian regime who are not only willing but looking for a confrontation with the West, through not only political and economic skirmishes but also military activity. It is unlikely that Tehran would strike first in this contest — instead, the aim would be to provoke an enemy attack to which Iran could respond. Thus, operations like yesterday’s demonstration gone wild could prompt the US and the „West“ — alongside the spectre of an Israeli operation — to take action which would justify a clash.

I am sceptical of that scenario. In a Final Game, Iran loses on the conventional scorecard, at least in the short term. Tehran does not have the resources to match up in a confrontation with the full range of its foes. That, however, leaves a second alternative….

Elements in the regime could be banking on the Shadow of the Final Game. Military confrontation will never arrive, but Iran’s leaders will always hold out the prospect of that confrontation.

To return to the opening point, they will do so not from strength, but from weakness. If the Iranian people can be held behind the regime for the nearly-but-never-quite-there showdown, then they might forgive the economic difficulties, no matter how serious they get. They might do their part, amidst the political in-fighting, by showing up for the Parliamentary elections next March. They might continue to give their loud, public loyalty to the final authority of the Supreme Leader.

In that context, yesterday’s game takes its minor but significant place. It is probably not the opening salvo in an escalated confrontation with Britain, let alone the „West“. It was designed to reinforce the point that the Islamic Republic is not on its knees, even if the occupiers threatened to take this farther by bringing down the British Embassy a permanent symbol of Tehran’s supremacy. As Tuesday recedes, this designed, spontaneous incident will be dramatic in its images but it will not be definitive in its impact.

Nothing is brought to breaking point. But nothing — between Iran and its opponents and, more importantly, inside Iran — is resolved.

Veröffentlicht am 30. November 2011, in Ohne. Setze ein Lesezeichen auf den Permalink. Kommentare deaktiviert für Iran Special Analysis: More Than a Game — 6 Points About the Attack on the British Embassy.

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