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The Mystery Behind The Saudi Embassy Attack In Iran

Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.
Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.

Two things are clear about those who ransacked and set alight the Saudi Embassy in Iran -- their actions got Riyadh's attention, and the clerical establishment in power in Tehran wants nothing to do with them.

Who actually carried out the attack on the embassy in the Iranian capital, as well as a separate attack on the Saudi Consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, remains a mystery, however.

Depending on who you speak to, it was official defenders of the Islamic republic; foreign-backed members of the opposition; or hard-line loyalists gone rogue who were responsible for the January 2 attacks.

The attacks, part of protests that followed Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, prompted Riyadh and several of its allies to cut or downgrade ties with Iran.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on January 3 predicted "divine vengeance" for the execution of Nimr, and the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- a military branch tasked with protecting Iran's Islamic system -- promised "harsh revenge."

The Iranian government, officially, was quick to distance itself from the violence that followed. Even as he condemned Nimr's execution, President Hassan Rohani on January 3 denounced the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic offices as "totally unjustifiable." And the authorities announced that 44 protesters had been arrested in connection with the attacks.

Blame Game

A number of Iranian officials went on to insinuate that the attacks could have been carried out by "infiltrators" with alleged ties to foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia.

"According to comments by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding the infiltration of the enemy, the recent move against the Saudi Embassy could have been planned and supported by infiltrated elements," Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said on January 5.

Some Iran watchers, however, believe hard-liners connected to the country's security establishment were more likely to be behind the attacks.

They point to the apparent ease with which the protesters entered the Saudi diplomatic missions despite the presence of police; in some cases documenting their destructive actions for posterity. "They appeared to have been well organized, they were not afraid to be identified, they took pictures with property from the embassy," Istanbul-based Iranian journalist Reza Haghighatnejad noted.

This suggests that they may have been acting with some degree of support from the centers of power, because in the past Iranian forces have shown no reluctance to respond forcefully to opposition gatherings and protests.

"Protests are not allowed," Haghighatnejad said. "The attack on [the embassy] lasted for an hour and a half before the commander of the police arrived."

At the same time, the authorities have also had difficulty in the past controlling hard-line elements said to be involved in disrupting gatherings by reformists and critics.

Haghighatnejad a, a member of the editorial board of the news site IranWire, said the actions of the protesters were similar to those of members of the Basij force, a volunteer militia that was involved in an attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011 that led Britain to cut ties with Iran.

Esprit De Corps

Aliasghar Ramezanpour, a former deputy culture minister, told RFE/RL he believes the IRGC ultimately bears responsibility because of incendiary comments made ahead of the attacks.

In a statement issued on January 2, the IRGC vowed that Nimr's execution would cost the "hated Saudi regime" dearly, predicting that "a harsh revenge from Al-Saud in a not so distant future that will lead to the collapse of the foundations of the reactionary, medieval, and terrorist-fostering Saudi regime."

In the aftermath of the violence, senior IRGC commander Mohsen Kazemeyni denied any corps involvement, saying that the "calculated and preplanned" actions were "very wrong" and "unjustifiable." Kazemeyni, who heads Tehran's Rasulollah Corps, said that "we're confident that this action was not carried out by the faithful and Hezbollahi forces [eds. regime loyalists]."

Ramezanpour, however, believes Kazemeyni was trying to wash IRGC's hands of its statement and the ensuing street violence.

"Even if the IRGC wasn't directly involved, its statement and the harsh tone prepared the ground for [the storming] by forces that were powerful enough to go past the police forces," he said.

Anyone And Everyone

Speaking on January 4, senior Qom-based cleric Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi criticized the violence, while leaving ample room as to who may have carried it out. "A group of establishment supporters are angry at Saudi actions and policies, but sometimes they get out of control," Makarem Shirazi was quoted as saying by local media. "It's necessary for them to be cautious."

But he also named a second group that could be responsible: "infiltrators" who aim at increasing tensions between Shi'a and Sunnis.

Hard-line media outlets, meanwhile, took conspiratorial angles. quoted an unidentified security official as saying that "a preliminary investigation from witnesses and those at the scene confirms that there was a fire in the embassy before the protesters entered it."

The conservative website, meanwhile, quoted eyewitnesses as claiming that Saudi infiltrators were encouraging protesters to throw rocks at and firebomb the embassy.

"Security forces say infiltrators have to be watched carefully because they want to change the direction of rightful protests by the people so that the crimes by the Saudis are not at the center of the world's attention," reported.

Israel did not escape blame, either.

Asked at a January 5 press conference whether Saudi elements and others allegedly trying to weaken the Iranian government were involved in the attack, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said that "even some affiliated with Israel" could be seen among the attackers.

"A few people -- with whom it's not clear which country's interests they are serving -- took advantage of people's feelings," he said, adding that the attacks were "in favor of Saudi Arabia's policies."

Whoever was behind the suspicious attacks, police chief Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari suggested on January 6, was no revolutionary. "Holding protest meetings against Saudi Arabia is acceptable, but no person who is loyal to the Islamic republic invades an embassy in this way," he said.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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