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Saudi Arabia and the Iranian Schizophrenia

13 January 2016

By Amir Taheri

Anyone following the Iranian media in the wake of the Saudi decision to break diplomatic ties with Tehran is likely to be puzzled.

While almost every media outlet blames Saudis for the crisis, there are significant differences in the narrative of events and the assessment of its impact. Some like Kayhan, reputed to express the views of ''Supreme Guide'' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Fars news agency, controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, have actually welcomed the Saudi decision which they believe removes the last excuse for going full force against the Kingdom.

Other outlets, for example the government-owned daily Iran or Sharq, a paper close to the faction led by former President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, have expressed regret about the severance of diplomatic ties and came close to criticizing the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mash'had.

While President Hassan Rouhani's entourage have equivocated, fielding lower-ranking foreign ministry officials to make statements, senior ayatollahs and military commanders have seized the occasion to sharpen attacks on the Kingdom and the five other Muslim nations who have severed or lowered ties with Tehran.

Once again, the incident highlights the schizophrenia that Iran has suffered since the mullahs seized power in 1979. There are two Irans, one that sees itself as a vehicle for the Khomeinist revolution and the other which hopes to return to the international community as a nation-state.

To the first Iran, attacking a foreign embassy is a heroic act designed to galvanize ''revolutionary masses''. In fact, the Khomeinists really seized control of the revolution on the 4th of November 1979 when militants invaded and occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days. That day has become one of the most important dates in the history of the Khomeinist regime, marked by government-organized festivities organized with regime grandees attending ceremonies to burn the American flag and effigies of the US President.

Attacking diplomatic missions became the regime's favorite tactic when President Jimmy Carter decided to swallow the humiliation and appease the mullahs by sending flattering hand-written messages to Khomeini.

The ayatollah concluded that ''America can't do a damn thing!'' That sent a signal to Khomeinists that they could ignore international law, including Vienna conventions on diplomatic missions, and attack, ransack and occupy any embassy or consulate they pleased. They indulged in the tactic on numerous occasions. The Islamic Republic became a global record-holder for the number of diplomatic disputes.

Since 1979 no day has passed without the mullahs holding some foreign hostages, mostly Americans. Even now they hold six US hostages. In its first three decades, the Islamic Republic experienced severance of diplomatic relations with 17 countries, including Muslim nations such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria. Its militants raided numerous embassies and consulates including those of the United Kingdom, West Germany (as it was called then), France, Italy and South Korea. They seized numerous diplomats as hostages for varying lengths of time, including the French Ambassador Guy Georgy. At one point, all members of the European Union, except Greece, withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran.

Under international law, attacking a foreign embassy is a causus belli (an act of war). Under the Iranian Penal Code, as amended in 1963, attacking a diplomatic mission is a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment. Under the same Penal Code, holding hostages is also a crime, punishable by up to 15 years in jail, or if death is caused, by capital punishment. Yet, in schizophrenic Iran, attacking foreign embassies and holding hostages is rewarded with honor and high positions.

Today, several members of Rouhani's administration are former hostage-holders, including the Defense Minister, the Chief Political Advisor and special aide for the environment. Rather than being in jail as the Iranian penal code requires, they are in top government positions.

In successive election campaigns, including the current one, we saw candidates who mentioned attacking embassies and holding hostages as great achievements on their CVs. Perhaps without knowing it, by ignoring the rule of law, whether domestic or international, Khomeini and his successors were imitating Lenin.

In his pamphlet ''State and Revolution'' Lenin insists that a revolution cannot abide by laws promulgated by a state or groups of states. ''Revolution makes its own laws,'' he states.

However, when it came to foreign diplomatic missions, even Lenin did not go as far as the mullahs. As Soviet Commissar for External Affairs Trotsky published the secret documents of the Tsarist foreign ministry but did not allow Bolshevik militants to attack foreign embassies let alone pillaging them and holding diplomats hostage.

There is another difference between Lenin and the mullahs. The Bolshevik leader wanted the revolution to transform itself into a state as soon as possible. He tried to speed up that process by publishing his famous New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1924. China's Maoist revolution of 1949 transformed itself into a state in the 1980s when ''strongman'' Deng Xiaoping promulgated his version of the Leninist NEP. In both cases the state that emerged from the Russian and Chinese revolutions remained despotic and laggard in terms of human progress. Yet, both behaved as states, observing the broad outlines of international law.

The Khomeinist revolution, however, has not succeeded in transforming itself into a state. In a recent BBC interview former British Foreign Secretary William Hague sheds some light on Iran's schizophrenia. He says that in 2011, after Khomeinist mobs attacked and pillaged the British Embassy in Tehran, the then Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi telephoned him to express ''deep apologies''. ''William, I'm truly sorry,'' Salehi said. ''I don't know who these people are and who sent them to ransack your embassy.''

Salehi may have been honest as to the identity of individual attackers, but he surely knew who sent them. Attacking embassies in the Islamic Republic has been and remains a fast-track to personal career advancement within the establishment.

Over the past four decades no one has been prosecuted, let alone punished for attacking diplomatic missions and holding foreign diplomats hostage. The foreign powers that fell victims to this behavior are to blame because they never insisted on the perpetrators being brought to justice, any justice.

Jimmy Carter simply brushed the whole thing under the carpet and other leaders, both from Europe and the Muslim world, imitated him, perpetuating the illusion that Khomeinists could do whatever they liked with impunity.

In fact, by insisting that the attack on their diplomatic missions cannot simply be ignored, the Saudis may have rendered Iran a service by forcing it, once again, to contemplate the central problem of its life for four decades: is Iran a nation-sate abiding by domestic and international law, or a revolution that is free of all laws?

The reaction to the current crisis shows that both versions of Iran are present even within the Khomeinist establishment. Those still drunk on the witches' brew of ''revolution'' hope that the attack on the Saudi missions and the subsequent crisis would help them mobilize and win in the next series of the regime's internal elections in February. In fact it is possible they planned the attacks for that very purpose as they had done in similar cases close to previous elections.

As long as schizophrenic Iran is not at peace with itself, it cannot be at peace with anyone else.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

  EsinIslam.Com

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