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Shouting “Death to England” and throwing in condemnations of the United States and Israel for good measure, members of the Basij militia stormed the British embassy compound and a diplomatic residence in Tehran on November 29th, causing significant damage. The rioters reportedly carried banners bearing the name of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, which runs the overseas operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Iranian security forces did little at first to stop the assault. The militants reportedly ransacked offices, burned the British flag, smashed embassy windows, and set at least one vehicle on fire. Militants also surrounded several British staff members. The police finally stepped in to quell the protest before it was allowed to spiral completely out of control.
The attack by the Basij militants occurred just two days after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a speech to thousands of Basijis from across the country during a meeting held in Tehran.
The next day Khamenei lashed out at Britain directly for unilaterally imposing the one sanction that will likely have a serious impact on the Iranian economy – requiring that all British credit and financial institutions cease trading with Iran’s banks, including the severing of all contacts with the Iranian Central Bank.
Addressing Iranian naval commanders, Khamenei said that Britain has a history of humiliating nations but that the Islamic Revolution resulted in Iran “single-handedly standing up to the biggest arrogant [powers] and imperialists and crushing their will.”
In addition to Khamenei’s denunciations of Britain, Iran’s parliament approved a retaliatory measure to expel the British ambassador and downgrade Iran’s diplomatic relations with Britain. All this helped to set the stage for the next day’s riot.
Referring to the militants as “students,” Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said that the “students’” action against the British Embassy was a symbol of the public opinion of Iranians,” in remarks to reporters the day after the mob attack, according to the Tehran Times. Larijani’s expression of support for the militants gives away the lie to the Iranian foreign ministry’s official expression of “regret.”
The British government decided that it had enough of the Iranian regime. It ordered the immediate closure of the Iranian embassy in London and closed its embassy in Tehran. In announcing the decision, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here.” While technically not a complete break in diplomatic relations with Iran, Hague described his government’s action as reducing relations with Iran to the “lowest level.”
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