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.
At 10:50 p.m. on September 17, 1992, three armed men entered the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin and murdered three leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, injuring three others. The trial of the culprits lasted five years. After the German court issued its verdict on April 10, 1997, in which it accused Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Velayati and then minister of intelligence Ali Fallahian of involvement in the assassinations, all members of the European Union recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.
Six days later Khamenei called the verdict “puppetry” that had been imposed on Iran by the United States and Israel. He predicted that “ten to fifteen years from now, U.S. and European agents will confess in their memoirs that they were the true culprits. The Americans believed that the reason Iran has resisted the U.S. is due to Europe’s support, which is why it planned this conspiracy to rupture relations between Iran and Europe. But Iran will not surrender to Western powers. The Iranian people’s trust in the German government was also absolutely ruined [by the verdict]. We have become self-sufficient in many areas, and thus need no government. The [Iranian] government should not hurry to reestablish relations.”
Regarding the accused that had been convicted, Khamenei said, “Those poor young people are imprisoned there. If they really have committed any crime, they should be given a fair trial and their verdict should also be announced.”
Foreign Ministers of the European Union condemned Iran on April 29, 1997, but the next day Khamenei called it, “useless, impolite and wrong,” adding, “European countries, which have a history of colonialism, starting two world wars, giving chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein [to use against Iran] and defending the crimes of Israel, the greatest violator of human rights, now brazenly demand that Iran respect human rights. Our criticisms of European countries far exceed their criticisms of us. Until further notice, Iran will not allow the German ambassador to return to Tehran. There is no problem with other ambassadors returning to Iran, but the government should not send back our ambassadors in its haste.”
On one hand, Khamenei was holding the Western governments responsible for the assassinations. On the other, he was demanding a fair trial for the true culprits.
Fierce Defense of Vigilante Groups While Rejecting “Extremism”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency is considered a national catastrophe for which Iranians will pay heavily for years to come. Thus, towards the end of his presidency, the opposition and critics intensified their attacks on his radicalism and extreme policies, as well as those of his aides, including former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Meanwhile, Khamenei’s support of Ahmadinejad was unparalleled and unprecedented when compared to his relations with Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and later Rouhani. The extremists who supported Ahmadinejad saw no limits to their efforts to eliminate critics and competitors. They attacked Rafsanjani and his family fiercely, and succeeded in removing him from the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader.
In 2011, Saeed Tajik, head of the Basij militia at Tehran’s oil refinery, physically attacked Faezeh Hashemi, a daughter of the former president. Other members of vigilante groups called her “whore” and “prostitute,” and attacked and insulted verbally her father, Rafsanjani, using the crudest possible words. Later on Tajik gave an extensive interview, in which he defended what he had done and attacked his detractors. He spoke in a way that it was clear that he feared no punishment, and threatened that if he were punished, his comrades throughout Iran would take action. Later, on June 14, 2013, the day of Iran’s presidential elections, Tajik appeared alongside Jalili in photographs that stoked controversy on social media.
In a meeting on March 10, 2011, with the Assembly of Experts, who had just removed Rafsanjani as their chairman, Khamenei reacted to the attacks on Faezeh Hashemi and said that condemning false religious and political ideas is a commendable act for young people, but that it should be done without physical or verbal attacks.
He then added, “Some of our young people are undoubtedly pious, pure and good, but think that this [attacking] is their [religious] duty. No, I say this is against the duty, the opposite of the duty. Thus, I would like to ask our youth not to permit this environment of accusation, vilification, and insult, to continue.” Without naming him, Khamenei then criticized Rafsanjani, saying that he is influenced by lies, takes the wrong positions and questions everything.
Though the critics seemed to be criticizing the repressive attacks of the vigilante groups as extremism and radicalism, they were in fact criticizing Khamenei indirectly as well. In response, Khamenei has repeatedly addressed his critics.
On March 21, 2012, several months after the attacks on the British embassy, Khamenei said, “I do not want my words to become an excuse for some to accuse our revolutionary youth of extremism and make them target of their reproach. No, I consider all of our zealous youth as pious and revolutionary and my own children and back them. I support them.”
In the same August 2012 speech in which Khamenei condemned the attacks on the British embassy, he said, “We should not violently and harshly confront our revolutionary youth who espouse wrong ideas due to their emotions. Our college students must be present everywhere, intellectually and physically, and [be able to] declare their positions. We should have students’ gatherings regarding various issues, including protesting the repression [of the Shiites] in Bahrain. But I am also opposed to extremism.”
As though Khamenei’s words had strengthened the extremists’ resolve, they disrupted a speech in Qom by Ali Larijani, speaker of the Majles, on February 11, 2013, and attacked him with shoes. The Majles prepared a detailed report on the attacks. Khamenei condemned them, and disruption of a speech by Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the ayatollah, on June 4, 2009, but admitted explicitly that such attacks are carried out by the Islamic vigilante groups. He said on February 17, 2013:
"I am opposed to what happened in Qom. I am opposed to what happened at the Imam’s mausoleum [where Hassan Khomeini’s speech was disrupted]. I have ordered the officials so many times to prevent such things. Those who commit such acts, if they really consider themselves as belonging to Hezbollah, they should not [do such things]. We consider these acts as not being in the interest of our country. They [the vigilante groups] go here and there, and chant emotional slogans against this or that; such slogans do not solve anything. Keep this anger, the emotions, for other [more important] issues. If during the “holy defense” [the war with Iraq during the 1980s] the Basij had attacked people on its whim, it would have destroyed the country. Order is necessary, as is discipline. Those who do not care about [my] words are in a different category. But those who do care and do not want to commit anything against religion, they should stop such acts."
In other words, Khamenei verbally opposes the vigilante groups’ law-breaking activities and gives them moral correctives, but supports them in practice.
Likewise, on June 4, 2013, Khamenei said, “Whenever easygoing people do not want to be in the field of struggle, they accuse the fighting pious of extremism and radicalism.”
The Rouhani Era
In 2013, Rouhani ran a successful presidential campaign on a platform that opposed extremism and espoused moderation, both domestically and abroad. He intensified his attacks on extremism after he was elected, and dismissed the radicals from the executive branch. In response, Khamenei has intensified and clarified his defense of the radicals.
On March 6, 2014, Khamenei said, “The nation should value the pious revolutionary youth that, whenever there was a threat, defended the country. No one can dismiss and isolate them and make people skeptical about them. Of course, no one can isolate them, anyway.”
On July 7, 2014, Khamenei said, “The Rouhani administration’s slogan is moderation, but under the guise of moderation and ‘avoiding extremism’ it is dismissing the pious forces.”
On September 9, 2014, Khamenei said, “They [the moderates and reformists] attack the revolutionary Hezbollah forces in the name of [confronting] extremism, whereas we should value them because they help the country in the times of threats.”
The Rouhani administration fired many university chancellors who had been appointed by Ahmadinejad, and has partly opened up the political atmosphere in the universities. Khamenei is very unhappy about this. On October 14, 2015, he said, “The government’s ministers should pay attention to [my] warning that they should not confront the pious revolutionary forces in universities.” A month later, he spoke to the minister of science, research and technology (who is in charge of the university system), the university chancellors and heads of research institutes, saying, “One of your duties is to allow the pious revolutionary forces dominate the [political] space in universities.”
In a meeting with the Basij commander on September 26, 2015, Khamenei said, “To infiltrate [the system], the enemy [the U.S.] through its agents constantly proscribes the pious revolutionary forces and the Basij. Anyone who accuses such forces of extremism and radicalism is helping the U.S. to complete its project [of infiltration]. Thus, they must stop making accusations of extremism.”
On January 20, 2016, Khamenei said, “They constantly threaten the revolutionary youth under the guise of [confronting] extremism. When it is time to defend our national identity by giving our lives and shedding our blood, they are the ones who do that. At the same, the depth of understanding and wisdom of our revolutionary youth are much better and deeper than those of many high officials. They are defenders of the revolution and Islam.”
Ever since the founding of the Islamic Republic, preserving the system of velayat-e-faqih (guardianship by jurist, that is, the supreme leader) has been entrusted to the Basij militia and other radical groups. Generally speaking, most dictatorial regimes make their social presence known “vertically,” and crack down on their opposition. But the Islamic Republic, in addition to its vertical repression, is also present “horizontally” in Iranian society. The Basij militia has branch offices everywhere—in schools, universities, governmental organs and mosques, in urban and rural areas alike. The Basij forces in each neighborhood consist of people who live in the same neighborhood, and so know every local resident.
The Islamic Republic has granted many benefits to those who work for the Basij. But members of the Basij also understand the Islamic Republic’s need and reliance on the radical forces, which gives them relative leeway for their behavior. This independence sometimes leads to their taking actions that have not been coordinated with other government organs. But, because they are linked to the security and intelligence forces, these forces also understand and recognize the system’s impassable red lines. Even then, they sometimes take actions for which the people and even the Islamic Republic as a whole must pay a heavy price.
But whereas the Islamic Republic punishes the opposition severely—such as, for example, the house arrest of the Green Movement’s leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard and former Majles speaker Mehdi Karroubi—it has never punished the radical forces meaningfully, even after they attacked Tehran University’s dormitories in July 1999, when they tried to assassinate leading reformist strategist Dr. Saeed Hajjarian in 2000, when they attacked Majles deputy Ali Motahhari last year, or when they attack music concerts, musicians and other artists. The latest of such attacks was protesting a gathering attended by Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, an award-winning actress, in Kashan, a city southwest of Tehran. The protesters tried to disrupt the gathering, calling Motamed-Arya profane names. Ayatollah Abdolnabi Namazi, the hard-line Friday prayer imam of Kashan and a member of the Assembly of Experts, called Motamed-Arya’s participation a great disaster because she supposedly did not wear a proper Islamic head covering, and declared that “Kashan cannot tolerate such festivities.” Iranian artists rushed to defend Motamed-Arya and condemn the attackers.
Ali Jannati, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, condemned the attacks, adding that “our hands are tied. These people [the attackers] are influential with a lot of power, and rely on their backers to do such things. We cannot even hold music concerts in some cities.”
The reason, as Khamenei sees it, is that the same forces will defend his rule and the clerics’ when his regime is threatened. The police and judiciary support the radical groups on the direct order of Khamenei.
Foreign government are interested only in their own national interests, which is why they view such groups and what they do only in the context of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic. The attacks on foreign embassies are a good example.
But Iran’s national interests, dignity and respect are what matters to the Iranian people. These are the same forces that put down the Green Movement. Almost everything that they do in Iran is targeted toward eliminating the competitors and preserving their own power. The recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran should be viewed in this context.
The judiciary has arrested Hassan Kordmihan, the leader of the vigilante group that attacked the Saudi embassy. He is a cleric who was active in the presidential campaign of Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, an IRGC brigadier general, in June 2013. He has also participated in the war in Syria. He and his group had a private meeting with Khamenei in December 2009, during which Khamenei praised him profusely and told him, “I am aware of the set of activities that you have been undertaking. It is like a spring that keeps producing water. The activities of the government, despite high costs, may or may not bear fruits, but your cultural activities are like a spring.”
Ayatollah Khamenei is well aware and experienced enough to know that attacking foreign embassies in Tehran exacts a heavy price on his nation, the Iranian people and even his own regime. But to him, the survival of the regime has the highest priority, and he believes that the Basij and other Islamic vigilante groups are the only ones that will ultimately defend him and his regime. The trouble is that the same groups have also created complex problems for the nation at the international level, exposing it to serious threats.
Akbar Ganji is an Iranian investigative journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shabodin Vajedi