Diplomatic missions matter, especially in Iran

by DANIEL HANNAN September 2, 2015

"Death to England!" reads the Farsi scrawl above the picture of the Queen in Britain's embassy in Tehran. Four years ago, a pro-government mob ransacked the building. Iran is perhaps the only place left where Britain still outranks the United States as the most hated Western power, and the ayatollahs rarely miss an opportunity to stir up crowds against "the Old Fox."

Last week, the embassy re-opened, the UK Government having decided, in a forgiving gesture, to undertake the cost of the repairs itself. Among all the vast implications of Barack Obama's Iran deal, the reopening of one diplomatic mission may seem a small thing - but diplomatic missions matter.

Think, after all, of what an embassy signifies. The establishment of diplomatic relations is the way two countries accord one another the rights and dignities that go with statehood. Underpinning those rights is the absolute sanctity of legation buildings. If the United States were to invade Venezuela tomorrow, embassy staff would be repatriated without fear of molestation. Even during the Second World War, when mutually opposed ideologies sought to extirpate one another, diplomatic personnel were evacuated through neutral countries.

What, by contrast was the grand overture of the Iranian Revolution? Seizing the embassy of the most powerful nation on Earth and holding its staff hostage. It is difficult, these days, to recall how traumatizing that action was. Like Islamic State dynamiting antiquities, the ayatollahs were calculatedly setting out to shock. They wanted the world to know that they were going to play by different rules. They cared nothing for national sovereignty, territorial jurisdiction or the law of nations; the only law they recognized had been codified twelve centuries earlier.

They got away with it, too. It is often forgotten that, even while 52 Americans were being held in Tehran, there was a mirror-image siege in London. A group opposed to the ayatollahs seized the Iranian embassy, took its staff hostage, and issued demands. The response of the British authorities was to send in the SAS, who abseiled down the side of the building like spiders on their threads, killed the terrorists and rescued all but one of the hostages. The building was then handed back to Tehran with a small check to cover the damages.

Unsurprisingly, the ayatollahs concluded that they could have it both ways, being accorded full diplomatic courtesies without needing to reciprocate. So began more than three decades of state-sponsored terrorism. The mullahs trained and supported militia groups, not only in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, but as far afield as the Balkans and Central Asia.

On one occasion, they even hit Buenos Aires, bombing a Jewish community center, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. Why Buenos Aires? What possible strategic interest could Iran have in a city that is about as distant from Tehran as it's possible to be? The remoteness was, presumably, precisely the point: The mullahs were showing that they could strike anywhere.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was an epochal event, ranking with the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Like them, it immediately spilled out from behind its borders, seeking to replicate itself around the world. Like them, it scorned all norms of international behavior. Just as Jacobin sympathizers across Europe opposed their own governments, and just as communist cells and parties around the world were strengthened by the support of the USSR, so the idea that you couldn't be a devout Muslim and a patriotic citizen of a Western state - until then a fringe opinion - received a malign boost.

In the end, the French and Russian revolutions were reversed because of international resolve, allied to the weariness of the citizens of those unhappy countries. Something similar might have worked in Iran.

But trying to jolly the ayatollahs into rejoining the comity of nations isn't working. Since the deal, Iran has showcased a new long-range missile. At whom is it aimed? It's worth glancing at the Ayatollah Khamenei's Twitter feed:

"Since Revolution, Zionists and Americans' enmity toward the Islamic Revolution has not declined and our officials must not forget this fact," declares the bearded old patriarch. "We spare no opportunity to support anyone #FightingTheZionists."

This is the regime we've now decided to deal with as a sovereign and responsible state. What the blazes are we thinking?

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.


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