Iran's ruling system seeks comfort zone in crisis

December 1, 2011 - 2:00 PM
Belgium EU Iran

Iranian dissidents wearing masks of Iranian politicians and ayatollahs during a protest in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. The protesters called for prevention of compulsory displacement of the Camp Ashraf residents inside Iraq and the annulment of the deadline for closure of Camp Ashraf by the end of December. Camp Ashraf, an enclave in eastern Iraq, houses more than 3,000 people, many of whom are dedicated to overthrowing the government of Iran. Iraq, whose government has close ties with that of Iran, has said Camp Ashraf must be closed by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In the middle of Iran's diplomatic meltdown with the West, the country's influential parliament speaker appeared unruffled. He calmly lectured reporters about historical grievances with Britain and the pent-up "wrath" behind the assault on its compounds in Tehran.

It was more, however, than just an Iranian counterpunch as Britain and European allies swiftly put Tehran into a diplomatic freeze after the attacks this week on Britain's Embassy and a residential complex for staff.

The crisis could hand hard-liners just the type of Iran-versus-West escalation they have always tried to leverage to their advantage. The outward confidence of the parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, and other officials suggest Iran's Islamic leadership is far from panic mode — and could even have set the showdowns in motion by sending paramilitary loyalists into Tuesday's demonstrations.

"All this could not have happened without a green light from the highest level," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iranian affairs expert at Syracuse University. "There's no doubt that hard-liners will look for ways to strengthen their hand."

That could mean an even tougher line against Western-led pressures over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is only for peaceful energy and research but others fear could lead to atomic weapons. Last month, some unltraconservative lawmakers called for pulling out of the international treaty overseeing nuclear activity after new sanctions from countries including the U.S. and Britain — which fed into the anger at the protests.

A former British foreign minister, Mark Malloch Brown, warned that Britain's diplomatic withdrawal from Iran would limit its role in nuclear negotiations.

"Until now Britain has been a ringleader of efforts to squeeze Iran into compliance with international restrictions on its nuclear program. Without an embassy it actually becomes a bystander, as it will quite quickly know less about what is going on in Iran than others at the table," Malloch Brown wrote in commentary published Thursday in The Guardian newspaper.

Many Western nations involved in talks on Iran had "tended to defer to British views because, unlike Washington, we had our embassy, our own listening post," he wrote.

There is also domestic intrigue in the mix.

Iran's ruling clerics and their political supporters, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, may tighten their squeeze on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his backers as part of a messy and ongoing power struggle.

Ahmadinejad has been in the crosshairs of the Islamic establishment as a perceived rebel, including openly challenging the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The latest break came in the build up to the rampage into the British diplomatic sites.

On the eve of a parliament vote Sunday to downgrade ties with Britain, Ahmadinejad rebuked Khamenei's backers on state T by "cutting interactions" with more countries. Oddly, Ahmadinejad has been silent since the protesters stormed the British compounds — raising speculation that the clout of hard-liners at the moment is too great to even intimidate the combative president.

The Tehran-e Emrooz daily, which is close to Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, carried an editorial saying Britain should "accept Iran's conditions" to resume full diplomatic ties.

In October, Qalibaf — a possible candidate to succeed Ahmadinejad in 2013 — ordered a lawsuit contesting the ownership of the land where Britain's Embassy has stood since the 19th century

State TV, meanwhile, repeatedly broadcast street interviews Thursday with people who supported the assault by protesters.

Such pro-state agitprop is expected to intensify in the approach to late March parliamentary elections, when pro-Khamenei factions will use their vetting control of candidates to try to humiliate Ahmadinejad's backers.

"What's happening now could be a settling of accounts in terms of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad showdowns," said Rasool Nafisi, who follows Iranian affairs at Strayer University in Virginia. "Iran's hard-liners feed off the ideas of enemies abroad and within. They get to take swipes in both directions."

But it also could bring new risks for Iran's ruling system.

Some moderate political figures joined the embattled opposition to denounce what's widely viewed as a state-sanctioned breach of international rules to protect diplomats. The protest outside the British Embassy was organized by hard-line groups at universities and Islamic seminaries — all with close state ties — and the mob that stormed that gates appeared to include members of paramilitary units, known as Basij, which are controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.

The Iranian middle class and elite have traditionally close ties to Britain as a place to keep foreign bank accounts and send their children for study. Britain also played an important role for reformist political groups as a diplomatic bridge between Tehran and Washington.

"This move will create many problems for many Iranian students, independent businessmen and the public in general," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. "They are the biggest losers from this."

Sadegh Zibakalam, a political affairs professor at Tehran University, said it appears the ruling system wanted to crush any chance of outreach to the West by Ahmadinejad's government, but may have misjudged the extent of the protest or the backlash from Europe.

"Even supporters of the establishment should choose the path of bravery and condemn this," he said.

Britain on Wednesday ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the country within 48 hours and suspended the work of its embassy in Tehran. At least four other European countries, including Germany and France, also moved to reduce diplomatic contacts with Iran.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday that the attacks were "clearly premeditated" by high-ranking officials, but claimed there were "divisions within the Iranian regime" about the move.

Iran freed 11 protesters detained for storming the compounds, reports said Thursday without giving an immediate explanation for the release. It could, however, indicate the detainees had high-level protection from circles within the Iranian establishment.

A Western diplomat serving in the region said the suspicions of official backing for the protest mob may make it very difficult for Britain to return diplomatic staff out of security fears. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity according to his government's standing policies.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers imposed more sanctions on Iran and its ally Syria, where the regime of President Bashar Assad has battled opposition forces since March.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran will certainly "retaliate" for the British expulsions, according to the local Mehr news agency.

Iran's government has criticized the attacks. But hard-liners have spoken out in support of the protesters. Mohammad Mohammadian, a representative of Khamenei, praised the attackers, saying they had targeted the "epicenter of sedition."

In a news conference, the parliament speaker Larijani said the "wrath of (the protesters) resulted from several decades of domination-seeking behavior of Britain."

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Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran. Associated Press writer David Stringer in London contributed to this report.