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Storming Of U.K.'s Embassy Summons Memories Of '79, But There Are Differences

Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.

Fresh images of hard-line students storming a foreign embassy in Tehran can't help but seem like déja vu. It's even November, just like before.

Before, of course, was just after Iran's 1979 revolution, when a group of young people calling themselves "students following of the line of Imam" (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic) stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ended up holding 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

The incident this week in Tehran has inevitably been compared to the events of 32 years ago. But there are differences. The 1979 hostage crisis began spontaneously. What happened on November 29, 2011, seems to have been a calculated move by hard-liners in the regime.

In a statement, the young people who claimed responsibility for the attack on the British Embassy called themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Supreme Leader. They referred to the British Embassy as "another nest of spies" and said the action is just one response to Britain's recent sanctioning of Iran's central bank, which they say represents a declaration of war.

A follow-up statement referred to the British Embassy as a "nest of plots" and accused it of playing a key role in organizing and provoking the 2009 postelection protests, which the government brutally supressed.

"Nest of spies" was a phrase heard often in the early years of the postrevolution period -- and is still used by some -- to describe the U.S. Embassy, which was accused of spying on Iranians.

Deep Distrust

Whereas the 1979 students immediately took hostages in the U.S. Embassy, there is confusion over whether the latest group held six British embassy staffers hostage for several hours. The Mehr news agency first reported that they had, but then removed the report from its website.

Later, the hard-line Fars news agency said six diplomatic staff who had been under siege during the attack were released by diplomatic police. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would not call the six "hostages."

The storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, led to the cutting of ties between the two governments, forging a deep distrust that continues to this day.

The consequences of the storming of the British Embassy are not clear yet, but the events have no doubt dealt a serious blow to diplomatic ties between the two countries. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already warned of "further and serious consequences."

Approval Of Senior Officials?

Tensions between London and Tehran have been rising in recent months over Iran's refusal to halt nuclear activities deemed suspicious by the West. A recent UN report concluding that Iran has worked to acquire a nuclear weapon led to a rare joint resolution by the P5+1 negotiating group -- Russia, China, the United States, France, and Britain, along with Germany -- aimed at putting more pressure on Tehran.

The attack on the British Embassy appears to have been a reaction to this growing international pressure on the Islamic republic and follows a vote on November 27 in Iran's parliament -- by a large majority -- to downgrade diplomatic relations with the U.K. in response to its new sanctions.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the deposed shah
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the deposed shah

The 1979 hostage-taking was widely seen as a response to the United States' longstanding support for the deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and what the hostage-takers perceived as Washington's attempts to undermine the revolution.

Observers believe the assault on the British Embassy could not have happened without the approval of senior officials. Since the 2009 postelection mass street demonstrations in Iran, and especially after this year's Arab Spring uprisings, Iranian security forces have prevented any public protests from taking place. Protests without the backing of the state are almost impossible to hold in the Islamic republic.

The swift reaction from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which expressed regret over the "unacceptable behavior by a small number of protesters in spite of efforts by the police," suggests that some within the conservative Iranian establishment are trying to do damage control and prevent tensions from rising even further.

Conversely, the 1979 occupation of the U.S. Embassy was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who called it Iran's "second revolution."

Power Struggle

The current supreme leader of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not yet publicly reacted to the attack on the British Embassy. What he eventually says will be central to what the Islamic republic does next vis-a-vis Britain.

As both international pressure and the government's internal power struggle reach new heights, the Iranian regime may be hoping that the incident could generate popular support.

On social media sites following the attack, some Iranians close to the opposition movement were trying to distance themselves from the protesters. One person even wrote that the people who stormed the embassy belong to the same Basij forces that attacked the peaceful 2009 protests.

Ironically, the country that some 30 years ago coined the slogan "Death to America" is today thought to have the most pro-American population in the region.

It remains to be seen if and how the attack on the British Embassy will impact the sentiments of Iranians toward the U.K.