Tuesday’s rampage — which involved demonstrators hurling satellite dishes from the roof of the embassy and ransacking files — was spearheaded by hundreds of members of a volunteer militia that pledges fealty to the supreme leader. But it elicited a contrite statement from Ahmadinejad’s Foreign Ministry, which called the assault on the British sites “unacceptable.”
With pressure on Iran escalating amid reported advances in its nuclear program, Khamenei declared last week that the country would meet “threats with threats.” On Sunday, after a decision by Britain to intensify sanctions against Iran, the parliament here voted to expel the U.K. ambassador.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in a statement called the attack on the embassy compound “outrageous and indefensible.” He warned Iran’s leaders of “serious consequences.”
One consequence could be that other European nations will recall their ambassadors, removing a key channel of communication with Iran. Europe is still one of Iran’s largest trading partners and serves as a key conduit between the country and Washington, which severed ties after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was taken over in 1979.
Demonstrators have for years protested in front of the British Embassy in downtown Tehran, but security forces had always prevented them from entering the compound. On Tuesday, they faced no resistance as they flooded through the blue steel gates; police intervened about an hour later, after much of the damage had been done.
“Attacking the U.K. Embassy paints a picture of a regime that is deeply distressed and flustered,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iranian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadjadpour described the Basij militia members who stormed the compound as “government-controlled rent-a-mobs” who are at the beck and call of Iranian security forces.
During the rampage, young men holding cellphone cameras and wooden sticks replaced the Union Jack with the Iranian flag atop the embassy. They chanted “Death to England” and waved banners emblazoned with Islamic slogans as they set fires and scattered papers. British diplomats escaped through a back door, and none was reported to be injured. Members of Iran’s parliament — where pro-Khamenei sentiment runs high — lauded the raid.
The protesters removed a British coat of arms from the wall of a building, carried off a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and used boards and other wooden objects to smash windows. Iran’s English-language state television channel was allowed to film the entire scene — a marked departure from protocol at anti-government demonstrations, where media coverage is tightly restricted.