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What do attacks on embassies achieve?

The eviction of British diplomats from Tehran should remind us that norms governing state-behaviour are perilously fragile.

The UK has had run-ins with the Iran before – notably the spat over Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989 – but the sacking of the British embassy on 29 November has dragged Anglo-Iranian relations to new depths. Officials in London reading the news trickling in from Tehran must surely have wondered whether the unfolding events were merely a prelude to a re-run of the 444 day crisis that crippled the Carter Administration and gave rise to a stand-off in US-Iranian relations that has lasted over 33 years.  They might also have asked themselves whether the Iranians could ever, as one British official put it, ‘maintain normal civilised relations with the rest of the world’.

Saner counsels in the Iranian government have done their best to limit the damage. The ministry of foreign affairs has affirmed its commitment to the protection of foreign diplomats and offered a full investigation into the incident. The ministry’s website has also down-played the events, while Iranian diplomats returning from London were quietly whisked away from the airport, before a throng of jubilant well-wishers could welcome them home.

The events do, nevertheless, prompt us to reconsider the ‘inviolability’ of diplomats and their residencies. Are contemporary views of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ diplomatic behaviour, merely a reflection of essentially western values, and the product of a system that marginalizes dissonant voices and reinforces western political dominance? China has been attempting to chip away at various elements of this edifice for some time, though ‘diplomatic’ law has been left pretty much intact. ‘Weak’, post-colonial states have occasionally vented their frustration by expelling western diplomats and burning down their embassies, and as my colleague John Young has recently argued the practice continued well into the 1960s and 1970s.

Current diplomatic law on the position of embassies and diplomats is enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (and its sister convention of 1963 governing ‘consular relations’). In both the preliminary drafting process and at the conference itself, discussion on diplomatic immunity and the duty to protect foreign consular and embassy buildings was distinctly muted. As Craig Baxter, the most recent commentator on the subject has noted, the absence of any serious debate points to a ‘deep-rooted understanding’ of the importance of these issues to the conduct of diplomatic relations. Special rights accorded to diplomats and their residencies can be found in the earliest legal codes in the western and eastern Christian traditions, and in those of the Moslem world and in the Far East.

The right to protect embassies is not absolute: a Belgian suggestion at the 1961 conference, that receiving states be required to take ‘all steps’ (rather than ‘all reasonable steps’) to protect diplomatic representatives was withdrawn – ironically at the request of the UK delegation – on the grounds that it would impose an impossible task on the host government. But, despite the frequent abuse of diplomats and their embassies, no state has ever seriously challenged the basic principles of international law in this area. It would be odd indeed therefore had the Iranian foreign ministry done anything other than distance itself from the episode.

If members of Iran’s “student basij militia” hope that in looting the embassy they might overthrow current diplomatic norms, they will find little support in the historical record. Revolutionaries no less zealous than the youth wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, have found it extremely difficult to overturn diplomatic practice. The two foremost assaults – by Revolutionary France in the 1790s and the Soviet Union after 1917 – made little headway. Naturally, both regimes viewed the privileged world of diplomacy as a bastion of aristocratic and nationalist privilege and set their sights on its violent overthrow. Though foreign diplomats were routinely roughed up and occasionally killed at the hands of French mobs and Russian assassins, the two regimes soon discovered that they had much to lose in abandoning diplomatic practice. More ‘revolutionary’ diplomats ended up on their death-beds than those of the old order. Lenin felt it necessary to hot-foot it to the German embassy to apologise for the murder of the German ambassador in July 1918. My own research has shown that even Hitler’s feared Gestapo – who thought nothing of murdering Allied prisoners of war  – were unable to convince their colleagues to countenance the assassination of British diplomats in neutral countries.

In the end, revolutionary states of all hues have come to recognize that the maintenance of meaningful dialogue between peoples ultimately depends on the collective adherence to certain agreed norms. They just need time to be reminded of the fact. One should, of course, hesitate in taking the lessons of history too much to heart, and recommend that the Cabinet ‘engineer’ an impromptu storming of the Iranian embassy in London. But there is little doubt that a dose of reciprocity has, in the past, got the point across.

Neville Wylie

Published inInternational PoliticsInternational RelationsMiddle East & North Africa

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