Iran's British embassy takeover: '1979 all over again'?

In an eerie echo of a Carter-era international crisis, hardline Iranian "students" seized the British embassy on Tuesday

Police chase protesters at the gate of the British embassy in Tehran: Hundreds of protesters stormed Britain's diplomatic compound on Tuesday, apparently to protest recent financial sanctions
(Image credit: REUTERS)

Young militant Iranians stormed Britain's embassy in Tehran on Tuesday, replacing the Union Jack with an Iranian flag, looting, throwing Molotov cocktails, breaking windows, and setting at least one car ablaze. British Prime Minister David Cameron called the rampage "outrageous and indefensible," and vowed that Iran will face "serious consequences" for failing to protect British diplomats and sovereign property. The U.K. has already closed and evacuated its embassy in Tehran, and has also ordered the closure of Iran's embassy in London. For many, the siege of Britain's diplomatic compounds is an unpleasant reminder of Iran's 1979-81 seizure of the U.S. embassy, when dozen of hostages were held captive. Here's what you should know:

What exactly happened on Tuesday?

Protesters outside the British embassy in central Tehran pushed past riot police, scaled the embassy walls, and threw open the gates. A mostly young crowd of men then ransacked at least parts of the embassy compound for a few hours before police stepped in and drove them out. Some 300 protesters also raided a British embassy compound in Qolhak, in north Tehran. Iran's news agencies reported that the Qolhak attackers took, and then released, six "hostages," though British Foreign Secretary William Hague disputed the "hostage" label. By nightfall, Cameron said all British personnel had been accounted for.

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What prompted the rampage?

Most analysts point to two triggers. The first is Britain's Nov. 21 decision to unilaterally impose punishing financial sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which led Iran's outraged parliament on Sunday to overwhelmingly order Britain's ambassador to be expelled. The second is the anniversary of the murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, which Iran blames on Israel, and possibly Britain. On top of any specific greivances, says Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, many Iranians "have always reserved their greatest fear and loathing for the British, their onetime colonial masters."

Was Iran's government behind this?

"Sorting out who to blame may be difficult," says Brian Murphy for the Associated Press. The protest outside the embassy "could not have taken place without official sanction," but it wasn't necessarily the government-aligned student organizers who led the attack. Oh please, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Everyone knows the rampaging "students" were members of the thuggish "basij militia, the regime's first line of defense." That's why "police stood by, and Iranian state television broadcast events live." Yes, "the Revolutionary Guard's calling card" is all over the embassy siege, says Britain's Guardian in an editorial. But that doesn't implicate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; it shows he's losing an internal power struggle with military and religious leaders.

And what happened in 1979?

Radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking 90 hostages, 52 of whom were then held captive for 444 days. The Iranians demanded that the U.S. hand over just-deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was seeking refuge and medical care under U.S. protection. President Jimmy Carter instead severed diplomatic ties with Iran, and ordered an infamously botched, politically crippling April 1980 rescue mission in which eight U.S. rescuers died in a mid-air collision.

How are these two events similar?

The parallels are actually quite striking, notes the AP's Murphy. Instead of "Death to America," Tuesday's pillagers were chanting "Death to England." But they used the same phrase — "spy den" — to describe each embassy, and in both sieges, hardline "students" led the charge, tearing down the British and U.S. flags and tossing documents out the window. Indeed, Tuesday's siege was "like 1979 all over again," says James Delingpole in Britain's Daily Telegraph. Notably, each embassy was attacked for the same, "very particular reason": The appeasement-minded West had "lost its authority in the Middle East."

What's different this time around?

The biggest and most obvious differences are the apparent lack of hostages and the government's decision to force the occupiers out of the embassy — at least for now. The motive is also much less clear today, says Joseph Cannon at Cannonfire. "In 1979, the cause was much more emotional — much sexier, if you will": The Iranian revolutionaries wanted the head of the "vicious tyrant" they'd just deposed. I don't understand why today's sanctions would invite "such rash action." Well, assuming this is the end of the crisis, says Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest, the last — and best — difference is that this "incident will pass relatively quickly," thankfully "contained within the normal diplomatic process."

Sources: American Interest, AP, BBC News, Cannonfire, Guardian, Heritage Foundation, New York Times, New Yorker, Reuters (2), Telegraph, Wall Street Journal

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