Iranian students climb over the wall of the US embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1979. Photo: AFP / IRNA
Iranian students climb over the wall of the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Photo: AFP / IRNA

As the world was mesmerized by the spectacle of the presidential race in the United States, attention was diverted from other headline-making issues, at least fleetingly.

In particular, it looks as though the dust has settled on the latest civilizational clash between the West and the Islamic world following the reprinting of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher who had shown the cartoons in one of his classes.

A debate on the appropriateness of republishing the controversial cartoons, the degree to which they caused offense to Muslims worldwide, the sanctity of freedom of speech in a secular society and the urgency to respond to the cold-blooded beheading of the French teacher by a radical immigrant may have subsided for the moment, as the world is preoccupied with the destiny of democracy in the United States.

Yet the debate could be reignited at any time, and in a multicultural society such as France, envied for the values it upholds, it is doubly important that there are responses to these uncertainties.

In reaction to the violence that jolted France like a thunderbolt, President Emmanuel Macron flew off the handle, stirring up resentment and consternation across the Muslim world.

From saying that Islam is a religion “in crisis” to defending the printing of the cartoons and arguing that the republic had to combat “Islamist separatism” with a determination to “disrupt terrorists [and] to curtail Islamists,” the French president’s rejoinder did not bode well with Muslims worldwide, and countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Pakistan and Turkey witnessed raging protests against France and Macron himself.  

The sweeping anti-Western, anti-French sentiments proliferated across the Muslim world so broadly that in a number of countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, there were even calls for boycotting French products, with shopkeepers and owners of department stores taking French-produced goods off their shelves, retaliating against what they perceived as state-sanctioned disrespect of their Prophet.

Iran, the only country where Shia Islam is the state religion, had its share of protests, and in addition to high-ranking authorities launching invectives against France and the “decadent” Western civilization that, according to them, condones blasphemy in the name of free speech, demonstrations popped up in front of the French Embassy in Tehran.

Some of the protesters urged the municipal authorities to change the name of the street on which the French mission is located, from the present Neauphle-le-Château to “Prophet Muhammad.”

The protests began on October 28 and lasted for a couple of days. Police were deployed to maintain the security of the diplomatic mission and prevent rioting and violence. The protesters, camping before the embassy compounds, brought in loudspeakers, burned the flags of France, the United States, Britain and Israel, sang religious hymns, offered congregational prayers and video-projected caricatures of Emmanuel Macron on the façade of the embassy building.

To be sure, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative, and Macron’s knee-jerk reaction to the disturbing events in France and his incendiary rhetoric were not emblematic of the prudent leadership qualities needed in moments when a nation is divided and angry, and can potentially spread those tensions through the world at large.

Also, I guess there are a few people who would dispute the right of Iranian people, and other Muslim communities around the world, to voice their disagreement with the French rendition of free speech, which even the progressive Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said should have limits, and protest peacefully against the snowballing of Islamophobic attitudes in the West.

But what is alarming and should be remedied is the continued vulnerability of foreign embassies in the Iranian capital, Tehran, and the fact that they appear to be the most accessible bullseyes whenever hardliners want to score political points with foreign governments, have an ideological ax to grind or are angry at something going wrong in the world and wish to vent their frustration.

A litany of Iran’s contemporary problems actually started with an assault on a foreign embassy, which continues to resonate with the international community as a paragon of lawlessness and anarchy, four decades after it was pulled off by a mob of revolutionary students.

On November 4, 1979, a clique of radical Iranian students, driven by the anti-US animus steeped in a newly born revolution, captured the US Embassy building in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days.

The incident, known as the Iran hostage crisis, was a prelude to the imposition of draconian sanctions on Iran by the United States, thrust Iran on to the US government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1984 and, most notably, preceded the breaking of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, which have not been restored to this day.

Many of the firebrand hostage-takers of 1979 cultivated political experience over time and emerged as pragmatic ideologues who are now calling for détente with the United States.

Yet the outcomes of their immature venture in violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, were anti-Iranian sentiments proliferating in the West, Iran losing international support during the Iran-Iraq War waged by Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic Republic being projected as a global actor unbound by its international obligations.

Deplorably, the revolutionary government of Iran at that time condoned and incentivized what was clearly an infringement of diplomatic protocol and perverted the course of Iran’s foreign policy for years and decades to come. It was one of the junctures when the hardliners realized they would be rewarded, rather than penalized, for violating the norms and flouted the national interest to entertain their ultra-nationalistic, ideological agenda.

Trespassing against foreign embassies and physically attacking them remained a practice indulged in by hardliners in Iran after the US Embassy misadventure, and a few recent examples imposed immeasurable reputational, political, diplomatic and economic costs on the nation. The authorities, however, never stood up firmly to denounce and indict the wrongdoers and prevent such mishaps from recurring.

On November 29 2011, an angry mob, incensed at the UK government’s economic sanctions on Iran, assailed the British Embassy in Tehran, ransacking offices, destroying paintings and vintage accessories, stealing documents and setting a small building in the compound on fire. The attack was condemned internationally, including by Iran’s stalwart allies Russia and China, and set the stage for the severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain.

It took five years for the two countries to restore full ties after an arduous process of engagement, and a former member of Iran’s parliament claimed this year that the government of Iran paid Britain US$1.6 million as compensation for the damage sustained during the incursion.

On January 2, 2016, concerted attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad, motivated by the Arab kingdom’s execution of eminent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, plunged Iran into a new diplomatic hassle, and the government of Saudi Arabia froze diplomatic relations with Iran immediately. The embassy building in Tehran was set ablaze with Molotov cocktails and the attackers took down and ripped the Saudi flag that rose above the embassy.

In a display of solidarity with the most powerful Sunni kingdom in the world, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan also severed diplomatic relations with Iran, and the governments of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

Iranian-Saudi relations never rebounded, and only misunderstanding and bitterness has piled up between the two rivals. By extension, Iran’s ties with the broader Arab world have been in a tailspin ever since without any betterment in the cards.  

As Iran finds itself bogged down with international isolation, and with foreign companies, cultural centers, academic institutions, and financial institutions notably absent from the country, embassies are almost the last strongholds of Iran’s connection with the outside world. They facilitate dialogue between Iran and other countries, offering vital consular services to thousands of Iranian students, academicians, scientists, businesspeople, journalists and tourists – as they do in every other country.

There are many ways to express disillusionment and discontent with the policies of foreign governments: sign petitions, write letters, pen articles in the media, create works of art, run conferences and organize online campaigns. Demonstrations are obviously an option. But let’s face it: In Iran, gatherings before foreign embassies have usually been unhelpful, opening up Pandora’s box of complications.

Although vocal Iranian hardliners continuously add to the inventory of their foreign anathemas and revel in an exclusive sort of aversion to anything beyond Iran’s borders that conservatively amounts to xenophobia, they will be doing their country and the world a big service if they forget about foreign embassies in Tehran as venues for the exhibition of their zeal and nationalist or religious sentiments.

While Iran’s law-enforcement authorities have abysmally failed to protect the foreign missions in Tehran in recent years, as indicated by the attacks on the British and Saudi embassies, the government should seriously consider coming up with new protocols for protecting diplomatic edifices in which there are people who make sure Iranian citizens are not entirely curtained off from the rest of the world.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.