Embassy Invasion Proves Iran Remains a Rogue State

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest against the execution of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, during a demonstration in Baghdad January 4. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

On January 4, the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to sack another embassy building in Tehran, that of Saudi Arabia.

According to the AP, "Protesters in Iran, angered by the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof…." Later, the invasion and sacking were denounced by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

But who's kidding whom? In November, 2011 the target was the British Embassy. Al Jazeera reported that "Dozens of young Iranian men have entered buildings inside the British embassy as well as a diplomatic compound in Tehran, throwing rocks, petrol bombs and burning documents looted from the offices."

And, of course, the first instance was the 1979 assault on the United States embassy compound and the seizure of hostages.

What these events have in common is the repeated failure and refusal of the security forces to protect embassies, despite whatever apologies come later.

Iran is a police state, with plenty of manpower available to stop "protesters" or "students" from entering embassy grounds that the Islamic Republic government—like all governments—is pledged to protect.

Iran's top police official later said police were working to defuse the situation and remove "protesters" from the building. But it was obvious the moment the Saudi Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2 that the Saudi embassy would need protection, so the decision not to provide it until it was too late was just that—a political decision.

Indeed, we will never know what proportion of the crowd of "protesters" was actually from the basij, the paramilitary "volunteer" mobs organized by the Revolutionary Guards. When the British embassy was stormed four years ago, here is what Al Jazeera reported:

Our correspondent said that the police and various ministries had prior knowledge of the protest, which was organised by the student arm of the Basij armed group. "Any such action of this could scale can never be independent in the Islamic Republic. These gatherings are always approved by higher officials."

The logical assumption is that what happened on January 3 is more of the same. So it is another piece of evidence that Iran refuses to live by the rules of civilized diplomatic practice, and that its behavior has gotten worse, not better, since the signing of the nuclear deal—whose "outreach" was supposed to change Iran's conduct.

Next time someone suggests opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran as part of the improvement in our relations, remember today's incident. The Islamic Republic still sees the invasion of embassies as an acceptable political tool.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.