Let’s Play The Embassy Polka!

Did anyone catch the news that the British embassy has pulled out of Tehran? The UK has withdrawn its entire staff and closed the embassy. The Iranians responded by promptly passing a bill that expelled the British ambassador, but that’s largely to save face at home, eh? *lol* The UK then threw the Iranian ambassador out of the country. Why wait until the British staff were out of the country? Easy: the long shadow of the 1979 hostage crisis.

This tit-for-tat embassy shuffle was sparked by an attack on the British compound by an unruly mob which appeared to contain Basij elements. Those are the street militia that the state use for routine thuggery when uniforms are inappropriate on the front pages. I would surmise that elements within the state almost certainly approved the attack, even if only tacitly. The crowd’s animus came from the latest round of sanctions levelled at the Islamic Republic for the nuclear weapons programme it is widely presumed to have going. (I, for one, think the intelligence is credible; the mullahs have a very good strategic reason for wanting one, and the wide dispersal and burial of facilities is kinda suspicious…)

What this leaves us is the biggest diplomatic spat the Iranians have had for a while. Not only have the Brits pulled out, but the French and German ambassadors have been recalled for ‘consultations’, and the EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss joint statements or action. The Iranians and Brits not getting along is old news — think back to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company monopoly and the 1953 coup; and hell, they only reestablished diplomatic relations in 1999 — but the rest of Europe getting behind the Brits in this is interesting to me. There’s a lot of money at stake, after all.

Think about it: What’s the one thing preventing much stronger action against Iran, specifically an oil embargo that would cut off their cash supply? It might drive the economy further into the ditch. A lot of countries depend on Iranian oil, and they are a huge contributor to the OPEC cartel. Getting enough countries to go along would be tough, since places like China and Russia could step in (China with more oil purchases, the Russians with cheap credit). This means that if Europe or Japan closed the spigot on Iranian oil it would likely only hurt them. And if you don’t know how messed up the European and Japanese economies are right now you’ve been asleep for way too long…

This makes it striking to me that the British foreign minister has said that the UK is behind the idea of oil sanctions, and would be willing to impose them unilaterally if the EU as a whole demurs (which is likely). Given the much more hawkish foreign policy of Sarkozy’s France I would not be surprised if he went along; the French don’t need the oil the way a lot of southern European countries do anyhow. The risk of damage is much lower for these two giants, so this would be more of a symbolic power-play, part of a steady ratcheting-up of pressure on Tehran.

Will it work? That is, will is stop the nuclear programme? Not in my opinion, but it will be interesting to watch this latest chapter in the long Iranian melodrama play out.

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