Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Attacking An Embassy Is a Horrible Idea

The recent attack on the British Embassy in Tehran was not solely a "spontaneous reaction" by Iranian "students." Rather, it was likely an outgrowth of domestic political disputes between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After Ahmadinejad put out signals that he wanted to run again for another term, in express opposition to Khamenei's wish, the relations between both men deteriorated. At this point, Ahmadinejad tried to rally his base among the poorer segments of the society, while Khamenei strengthened his grip on the Basij militia and the Revolutionary guards.

The attack on the British Embassy erupted as Ahmadinejad tried to deal with the fallout of British-sponsored sanctions, and Khamenei and his cliques saw this as an opportunity to strengthen their hold over the radical, anti-West part of Iranian society.

While it is always tempting for governments to send their miscreants to embassies to protest -- or to let their citizens vent their outrage toward another country's bad policies (to make sure that the citizens don't blame the government itself for incompetence)--they usually try to ensure that the attack never goes out of control.

Embassies enable very important diplomatic functions--to facilitate communication between host and foreign countries--and yet are frequently vulnerable to attacks. Foreign countries whose embassies are violated may decide to retaliate, for embassies are considered "sacred," an extension of state sovereignty, and their integrity should not be violated.

Not surprisingly, the recent sacking of the British embassy led to one of the very few occasions when both the Russians and the Chinese agree with the United States and the European Union on Iran: all of them gave statements supportive to the British, providing a diplomatic nightmare for Iran.

The Chinese and Russians may not agree with the crux of British policy-- they fought tooth and nail against toughening sanctions on Iran. Still, they didn't miss a moment to declare their displeasure over the sacking -- they were completely aware that what happened to the British may also be dished at them if things spiral further out of control.

Aside from an international slap-on-the-wrist, there are also strategic reasons why attacking embassies isn't a good idea.

Here's one example. In 1979, while Iran successfully managed to bring down President Carter through the prolonged hostage crisis, it also suffered a simultaneous strategic setback. Saddam Hussein took advantage of the situation by mounting a military invasion of Iran, calculating that Iran, as a pariah nation, would not receive much military or diplomatic support. After Iraq's invasion stalled and Iran in turn invaded Iraq, the Gulf states threw their support behind Iraq, and the U.S. restored its diplomatic relations with Iraq and funded the Iraqi army.

In short, the embassy attack isolated Iran and dried up much of its international goodwill. Not surprisingly, even the Iranian hardliners later came to regret the attack.

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