State-sponsored embassy vandalism in Iran compounds its global alienation
As the administration of the ultra-conservative Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi finds itself lonely on the world stage with a dwindling appetite for foreign relations beyond “strategic” partnerships with China and Russia, the functioning of foreign embassies based in Tehran is becoming increasingly unsteady.
In the wake of the nationwide protests that followed the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini in custody of the morality police, the Islamic Republic’s relations with Western nations went down a slippery slope of estrangement as more countries raised their voice in support of the protesters and decried the crackdown.
Amid this period of precarity, embassies in Tehran became the target of vile attacks the government didn’t take action to stave off, lifting the veil on its flawed hosting and disconnect with the international community.
On a couple of occasions, the British embassy in Tehran, an anathema of the most hardline elements of the establishment and their partisans, was vandalised with trespassers spray-painting racial slurs, political slogans and other hateful messages on its walls and gates.
"The last time the Islamic Republic failed to protect the compounds of the British embassy from a violent attack... it took four years for relations to be restored"
On December 15, 2022, the British ambassador to Tehran Simon Shercliff posted a tweet with photos of several people helping to cover up the scribblings by painting the walls in solid white.
According to the tweet, associates of Tehran-based embassies, including Brazil, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Slovakia, Switzerland and Ukraine, as well as pedestrians had rushed to assist the British mission in what could be construed as a show of solidarity with the UK and a humiliation for the instigators of the act of sabotage.
It wasn’t long after that fiasco that the walls and entrance doors of the embassy were targeted once again, with more pejorative comments being scrawled in huge letters. Shercliff tweeted on January 15 that his European colleagues, the French and German envoys to Tehran, had visited his mission to express support.
Although the motives of the delinquents remain unclear, the most obvious speculation is that in line with a visceral, decades-long fatalism cultivated by the Islamic Republic ideologues, Britain is once again being villainized as the external actor behind an unrest in Iran. As such, the plotters of the attack wished to send a message of revenge and defiance.
The last time the Islamic Republic failed to protect the compounds of the British embassy from a violent attack by a mob of students associated with the Basij militia on November 29, 2011, it took four years for relations to be restored.
It was only after Iran reportedly paid the British government £1.3million in damages from taxpayers money that London acceded to resuming its diplomatic representation.
The new year saw Iran-West relations taking a further hit. After the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons parodying the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a group of clerics and Basiji students gathered in front of the French embassy in Tehran to protest, defaced the insignia of the embassy and vandalised its walls. The French embassy building is one of the oldest diplomatic premises in the capital, constructed in 1894.
The British embassy is also an ancient building that was built in 1852 and was inscribed in the list of Iran’s national heritage in 2003.
There are booths of “diplomatic police” stationed before each embassy and consulate in Iranian cities, and this branch of the law enforcement command is tasked with protecting foreign diplomatic missions operating in the country.
The fact that mischief-makers with an extreme political agenda found it so easy to circumvent the police presence and raid two major embassies in some of the most crowded districts of Tehran can raise a myriad of valid questions about the efficiency of the security and the seriousness of their mandate.
But beyond the failure of the police to safeguard embassies on multiple occasions, there is a broader trend of state-sponsored embassy vandalism to behold.
One of the catalysts of the decades-long hostility between Iran and the United States was the 1979 hostage crisis, an escapade in which a group of revolutionary students took 52 US diplomats captive for 444 days.
"Because the Islamic Republic principally views global alliances as a liability rather than an asset... it has hardly ever regarded protecting diplomatic missions as a responsibility that ensures the continuity of its ties with the outside world"
Aside from triggering the severing of the diplomatic ties between the two countries that stretched into the 21st century and hasn’t been overhauled ever since, it also cemented Iran’s external image as a nation that doesn’t play by the rules of diplomacy and flouts its international obligations.
What was clearly an infraction of international law and a political embarrassment was lauded by the chieftains of the Islamic revolution as a heroic and brave undertaking pulled off by the militant students.
The ones who faced the consequences were the ordinary Iranian citizens who had to pay a hefty price over the years to come for their government’s decision to square up to the US in a fruitless ideological battle.
Because the Islamic Republic principally views global alliances as a liability rather than an asset and shows little inclination to bolster ties with a diverse set of countries outside its hypothetical, cloistered “Axis of Resistance,” it has hardly ever regarded protecting diplomatic missions as a responsibility that ensures the continuity of its ties with the outside world.
It is a rarity for the leadership to take judicial action against embassy assailants or at least denounce them rhetorically.
Other than a clique of hardline students brainwashed by the state’s anti-Western ideology and the radicals who are endowed with protection and resources to make such inroads, ordinary Iranians have no interest in ransacking diplomatic missions and foisting further complexity on the nation’s fraught foreign relations.
Hundreds of Iranians took to the Twitter handle of the British ambassador, offering apologies over the misbehaviour of some of their fellow citizens they said don’t represent them and their manner of hospitality.
State-sponsored embassy vandalism is a serious phenomenon in Iran, and comes into view as an incurable malady with a government reluctant to address it.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter: @KZiabari
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