Saudi Arabia executed a prominent anti-government Shiite cleric on Saturday, prompting angry mobs in Iran to storm the Saudi consulate in Mashhad and set ablaze Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran. In both instances, Iranian authorities did not step in until both buildings had been severely damaged. Officials in Washington say it is “too soon” to determine Tehran’s responsibility for the incidents, but the evidence suggests otherwise: the attacks enjoyed the passive – if not active – support of the Iranian government.
On the day of the cleric’s execution, media outlets and student groups linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Basij paramilitary called for protests at the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad the following day. The protesters there, not surprisingly, included instructors at state-run religious seminaries and Basij members.
Moreover, security at the facilities grew suspiciously lax immediately before the riots broke out. Diplomatic police had set up a security perimeter around the embassy in Tehran during the late afternoon and early evening, but when the mobs stormed the embassy that night, authorities were nowhere to be found. Law enforcement arrived and dispersed the crowd only after the building had been set on fire and photos of looting had widely circulated on social media. In Mashhad, security forces were photographed standing idle as protesters climbed the fence, set fire to the consulate, and shattered windows.
Authorities in Iran have been evasive about who was responsible for the attacks. The commander of Tehran’s IRGC unit said the incident had been “organized,” but not by the regime’s supporters. The prosecutor-general blamed “infiltrators” seeking to undermine the government while the police condemned unnamed “rogue elements” and announced the arrest of 50 individuals.
Of course, Iranian security forces are more than able to quash protests when regime interests are threatened – such as in the unrest from the fraudulent June 2009 elections, and the violent crackdown on student protests a decade earlier.
Iran has a history of consenting to mobs ransacking embassies. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, openly supported seizing the U.S. embassy in 1979. In 1987, mobs attacked the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran following the deaths of Shiite pilgrims in Mecca, and in 2006 rioters targeted the Danish mission over drawings of Muhammad. After a mob stormed the British embassy in 2011 to protest nuclear sanctions, London’s ambassador rightly noted that such a security breach could happen only “with the acquiescence and the support of the state.” In the words of The New York Times’ Tehran correspondent, this weekend’s attack represented Iran “dust[ing] off its favorite playbook, unleashing hard-line anger on the streets.”
The Islamic Republic’s apparent complicity in the latest attacks violates basic international norms of diplomatic immunity and the protection of embassies and consulates. This weekend’s incidents, like Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile tests, suggest that last year’s nuclear deal and the attendant economic opening have done nothing to moderate Tehran’s aggressive international behavior, but merely emboldened it to continue.
Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj.