The Attack on the Saudi Embassy Made Easy

4 MINS READJan 4, 2016 | 18:21 GMT
Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Jan. 2 during a demonstration against Saudi authorities' execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Iranian anger over Saudi Arabia's execution of imprisoned Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2 escalated rapidly over the weekend, leading to a breakdown of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The watershed moment occurred when thousands of Iranian protesters stormed and ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi personnel wisely were not at the embassy at the time of the incident and, based on the severing of relations announced by the Saudi foreign minister on Jan. 3, they likely will not be in the country for much longer.

In Iran, overrunning foreign diplomatic missions has become a popular method of registering anger with foreign countries, and the question of official involvement always comes up afterward. It has often been difficult to find proof of such involvement, but as in past cases, the storming of the Saudi Embassy bears many signs of official approval. On Jan. 2, Iranian military, religious and political leaders, including the supreme leader, condemned the al-Nimr execution and made thinly veiled threats against the House of Saud. Then, on the afternoon of Jan. 2, Iran's state-controlled theology schools closed in protest of the execution. Within a few hours, Iranian media reported that students from Tehran seminaries were beginning to protest in front of the Saudi Embassy. Soon after, the crowd began throwing incendiary devices at the building before storming and looting it. Only in the early hours of Jan. 3, once demonstrators had ransacked the offices of the embassy, did police begin to intervene, arresting 40 people out of approximately 1,000.

In 1979, a group of religious students led the charge in storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in what would become a dramatic and drawn-out hostage situation. In 2011, students were again active in an attack on the British Embassy. The Jan. 2 decision to close theological schools turned loose the most likely demographic to protest: males in their late teens and early 20s eager to prove their righteousness. Several hours passed between the initial gathering and the storming of the embassy, and police intervened only after protesters started looting. Officials did not call for calm until after the situation had reached its climax and the embassy building burned.

Absent specific intelligence, it would be difficult to prove that officials ordered the attack on the embassy. However, they created an environment that encouraged and facilitated the attack and then failed to take action to stop it until significant damage had occurred.

Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Iran is a signatory, primary responsibility for the security of a foreign diplomatic post rests with the host country. However, when the host country is either unable or unwilling to provide that security, a diplomatic facility is vulnerable to attack. Security measures at even well-defended diplomatic facilities are intended to protect facilities against bombings and sudden intrusions and to provide a delay so that the host country's security services can respond. There is no embassy building in the world that cannot be overcome by a prolonged attack by either a mob or a militant group. In recent years, diplomatic facilities in several countries have suffered heavy damage from mob violence, including facilities in Tunis in September 2012 and Tripoli, Libya, in May 2011, or from a sustained militant attack, such as the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.

Violent anti-Saudi Arabia protests have been confined to Iran so far, but peaceful protests outside diplomatic facilities in Pakistan, India and Lebanon have been reported. Saudi diplomatic missions and symbols of Sunnis in general will likely become more prominent targets in the coming days as protests spread. Specifically, countries with large Shiite populations and a significant Saudi diplomatic presence should prepare for potentially violent protests. Saudi missions located in the countries listed above, along with Nigeria and Iraq, where the Saudis just reopened their embassy after 25 years, should all be considered at especially high risk. It will be important for Saudi officials to gauge the willingness of host countries to guard their diplomatic facilities, and if such protection is not given, they should withdraw their personnel to protect them from being killed or taken hostage.

Another potential security flashpoint to watch is the royal Qatari hunting party that Shiite tribesmen are holding hostage in Iraq. The tribesmen had demanded al-Nimr's release in exchange for the Qataris. While that was never a likely outcome, the execution of al-Nimr in the midst of hostage negotiations does not bode well for the Qataris.

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