A 150-year-old precedent for what is happening at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran may be influencing the Soviets to give their cautious backing to the Americans in their disputes with the Iranians.
In 1829, far worse treatment than has yet befallen the U.S. diplomats in Tehran cost the lives of 37 Russians assigned to represent the czar in the Persian capital.
The haunting parallel was recalled recently by Sir Alan Watt, former Australian ambassador to Moscow and an ardent student of the footnotes to diplomatic history.
War between the Russian and Persian empires led the shah of the time to sue for a peace concluded in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai, inflicting heavy indemnities on the Persians.
Sir Alan notes in the Canberra Times that the chief Russian negotiator, playwright-diplomat Alexander Griboyedov -- who was best known for his satirical play, "The Misfortune of Being Clever" -- resisted with deep foreboding the czarist assignment to return to Tehran as head of the Russian legation.
Griboyedov's friend, poet Alexander Pushkin, wrote after it was all over about how, before leaving the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, the future Russian minister in Tehran told him: "You don't know these people. You'll see that it's bound to come to knifeplay."
Sir Alan, citing the introduction to an Oxford University Press Russian edition of Griboyedov's play, says the Persians -- already angry about the taxes paid to meet the war debt -- were enraged when the Russians started flouting local customs to win the return of subjects of the czar from Persia.
"The asylum afforded in the legation to two Armenian girls from the harem of the shah's son-in-law scandalized the local population; and when a eunuch of the shah's harem, Mirza Yakub Makarian, took refuge in the legation and claimed the right to return to his native Armenia, the people of Tehran felt that an outrage had been committed against the dignity of their country.
"Their fury was fomented and organized by the mullahs, who seem to have been immediately responsible for the catastrophe." They called the people to the mosques and told them to go to the Russian legation to free the women and kill the offending eunuch.
"A mob several thousand strong," the account continues, "marched out to the legation and poured into the front courtyard. Mirza Yakub was seized and torn to pieces, but the mob was not appeased.
"The legation's Cossack guard fought back for over an hour, but in the end were overpowered and massacred.
"The last stand was made in the room were Griboyedov himself was. Here the Russians held out for some time until the mob, swarming onto the roof, tore off the files, smashed the ceiling, and bombarded the Russians with stones from above. All but one of the legation personnel, to a total of 37, were slaughtered. Only the legation secretary, Maltsev, who had taken refuge in a neighboring building escaped.
"Griboyedov's body was dragged through the streets of the city and fearfully disfigured; it was later identified only by the deformity of the little finger on his left hand."
By an astonishing concidence, Pushkin later met a group of Goergians in the mountains near Armenia coming from Tehran with an oxcart bearing a coffin containing the body of Griboyedov.
The Russians, on bad terms at the time with the Ottoman empire, took no retribution.