Khamenei’s History of Backing Vigilantes
Iran's supreme leader condemns "extremism" while quietly supporting its agents.
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, Tehran has seen attacks on the embassies of the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia, and numerous demonstrations around other foreign embassies. The Islamic Republic is a dictatorial regime that systematically violates its citizens’ human rights. Most of the power is in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who uses it ruthlessly. The questions have always been, does Khamenei support the attacks on the embassies? Does he view all embassies the same way? If he opposes the attacks, how has he treated the attackers? Has he punished them, or supported them?
This article argues that while Khamenei has always publicly opposed the attacks, he has always supported the forces that commit such attacks.
Supporting the U.S. Embassy Siege
On February 14, 1979, a group of leftists invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and occupied it. But the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan quickly expelled the attackers and ended the episode. When the Islamic students calling themselves “followers of the imam’s line” overran the embassy on November 4, 1979, future president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful figures at that time, and Khamenei, who was still a relatively junior official, were in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. They returned to Tehran two days later, unaware of the attack. The students were coordinating their activities with Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s son, through Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, one of Khomeini’s closest lieutenants. When Khomeini strongly supported the takeover of the embassy, everyone else fell in line and was forced to do likewise. In his memoirs, Rafsanjani writes, “Khamenei and I were surprised; we did not expect the takeover. It was also not our policy.”
In the anti-imperialist environment of that period, leftist groups supported the takeover and proposed the formation of an “anti-imperialist front” led by Khomeini. The Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) firmly supported the seizure as well.
Years later some of the hostage takers and Rafsanjani condemned and rejected the takeover, and considered it to be against Iran’s national interests. But Khamenei has always defended it. In a speech to college students on December 28, 1989, Khamenei said, “That strange and historical event [the embassy takeover] came about because the United States humiliated many nations through coups and regime change, and it still does. By humiliating just once, it was demonstrated that the power of the unreasonable powers is not absolute. The Americans were humiliated; they still suffer from it, and will always do.”
According to Khamenei, those who opposed the embassy takeover have always said that if that had not happened, Iran would not have been hurt so much, but “this is utter naiveté because the issue of the righteousness of the act did not depend on whether it was right to do so. The point is that it would not have been possible to protect the Islamic Revolution against the United States [had that event not occurred].”
Condemning Attacks on Embassies
Khamenei has condemned attacks on embassies once preemptively, and twice after the fact.
On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to kill author Salman Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses. The British governments and other Western powers defended Rushdie’s freedom of speech, and protested the fatwa. The day after the fatwa, two thousand people staged a demonstration in front of London’s embassy in Tehran.
In his Friday prayer sermon on February 17, 1989, Khamenei, who was Iran’s president at the time, said that Rushdie’s book is an insult against the Prophet and all Muslims, while Westerners claimed that the book is justified by Rushdie’s freedom of expression. If this is the case, Khamenei said, then Khomeini’s view should also be understood in the same way. “Imam [Khomeini], as the leader of Muslims everywhere, issued his order, and Muslims, due to their belief and love for the Prophet, will definitely carry out the order whenever and wherever they can,” he added. At the end of his sermon, Khamenei said:
"I have heard that some people have gone after [Western] embassies. I am ordering you, as president, as prayer imam, and as a cleric, not to approach the embassies. You should know that if you object to the policies of the United States and Britain, or any other government, the way to address it is not by sending some people to climb up the embassies’ walls and take them over. I testify to you that this would definitely be harmful to Muslims and the Islamic Republic. The people can march, and show their emotions, [which are] undoubtedly sincere and rational. They can go out on the streets and critique any policy, but they should not approach the embassies. It is possible that the enemy may do this. It can send some of its agents to the middle of a [demonstrating] crowd, climb up the walls of an embassy, start a fire, break some things, destroy other things, but you should know that this would be a crime, and if someone knowingly commits is, it would be treason."
Thus, Khamenei declared most clearly, attacking foreign embassies is a crime tantamount to treason, and against the interests of Islam and the Islamic Republic.
After the fatwa, many European countries recalled their ambassadors from Tehran, and Tehran retaliated likewise. On February 27, high government officials held a meeting with Khomeini to discuss cutting off diplomatic relations with Britain. Khomeini declared that he was neutral. Ahmad Khomeini, Khamenei, and then Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati [who is now Khamenei’s senior foreign policy adviser] opposed cutting the relations, but according to Rafsanjani’s memoirs, then Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi [a leader of the Green Movement who has been under house arrest for five years] supported it.
Decades later, on November 30, 2011, a group of hardline students attacked the British embassy in Tehran, occupied it for several hours, and inflicted some damage. They set Britain’s national flag on fire, and replaced it with the Islamic Republic’s. Britain cut its diplomatic relations with Iran, which proved costly to the Islamic Republic. The United States, China, Russia, Canada and Western European countries condemned the attacks at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, as did the UN secretary-general.
In a speech to college students on August 7, 2012, Khamenei said, “In the recent occupation of the [British] embassy the students’ hearts were in the right place, but it was not right to go into the embassy. I support students’ gatherings [to protest], but oppose extremism in such gatherings.” Even though what Khamenei said has been published repeatedly by media close to the Revolutionary Guard, the above part has been removed from the complete speech in Khamenei’s two websites (here and here).
And just this year, a third incident allowed Khamenei to distance himself from embassy protesters. There has been a long-running feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia over regional supremacy. After 464 Iranians were killed during the hajj, and Saudi Arabia executed forty-seven people including Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a vigilante group attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran on January 2, 2016, and set it on fire. Saudi Arabia and its allies cut their diplomatic relations with Iran, and the Arab League, UN Security Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council all condemned the attacks.
In a speech on January 20, Khamenei said, “I did not like the attacks, not only on the Saudi embassy, but also on the British embassy. Such operations are not acceptable; they are terrible, and hurt our country, Islam and everybody.”
Quiet Support for Vigilantes
One may ask why, if Khamenei always condemns such attacks, they continue to happen and the offenders are not punished. The problem is that Khamenei’s positions are complex and self-contradicting.
Ever since he was named supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei has always believed that the only groups that protect and support the Islamic Republic and his rule are the Hezbollah forces and the Basij militia. He has said repeatedly that these forces stood against those who wanted to topple the Islamic Republic following the revolution in streets, universities, industrial plants and farmlands, and that if they did not exist, Iraq and the armed opposition would have defeated Iran. In a speech to the high officials on July 13, 1992, Khamenei said:
"This [the militia and vigilante groups] is the principal force of our country. The Islamic system relies on this force. If the people, the pious Hezbollah forces, support the system and the government, if this great and undefeatable force backs the officials, no power can confront the Islamic Republic."
In the same speech, Khamenei said that when the Hezbollah and Basij forces act as the morality police, the government does not support them. He then ordered that “the official officers, the police of the judiciary, must defend the morality police. The entire system must defend them; this is a duty.”
Throughout Khamenei’s years of leadership these vigilante groups, which are linked to the security and intelligence forces, have attacked the opposition and those who differ with them—attacks that are in direct violation of the laws of the regime itself. Whenever the regime could not officially confront the opposition, these groups punished it unofficially. The infamous “chain murders” of the 1990s and the assassination of some members of the opposition outside Iran took place within this context. Another such terrorist operation wound up creating a crisis in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the outside world.