President Hassan Rouhani asked Iran's judiciary on Wednesday to urgently prosecute the people who attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in protest over the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shia cleric.
His comments appear to show his determination to reduce tensions with Iran's Sunni Gulf neighbors and continue his attempts to normalize ties with world powers by speaking out on a practice that has become a challenge for the Islamic Republic's foreign policy.
On Wednesday, Qatar became the latest country to recall its ambassador from Iran. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti broke ties with Iran earlier in the week. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations, and Kuwait recalled its ambassador after the embassy was stormed. Jordan summoned Iran's ambassador.
After reaching a landmark nuclear deal with world powers in July, Rouhani is seeking to end Iran's long isolation with the West.
However, the repercussions of the attack could jeopardize that, posing the biggest diplomatic crisis of his government. Members of the United Nations Security Council released a statement on Monday condemning the attack and another on a consulate in the city of Mashhad “in the strongest terms.”
“By punishing the attackers and those who orchestrated this obvious offense, we should put an end once and forever to such damage and insults to Iran's dignity and national security,” Rouhani was quoted as saying in a letter published by the state news agency IRNA.
While embassies are often a focus of protests worldwide, Iran still celebrates the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran every year and refers to it as the second revolution.
Since then, Iranians have attacked several embassies in Tehran — including those of Kuwait in 1987, Saudi Arabia in 1988, Denmark in 2006 and Britain in 2011 — with most of those incidents leading to a breach in diplomatic relations.
Some of those attacking the Saudi Embassy and starting fires took selfies and published them on social media — a clear sign that they thought they would enjoy immunity from prosecution in a country that has multiple power centers.
In the letter, Rouhani asked Sadeq Larijani, the head of judiciary, to bring to justice those behind the attacks.
“This has been always a paradox in the Islamic Republic,” said Hossein Rassam, a former political adviser at the British Embassy in Tehran. “While the revolutionary state condones or supports such attacks to capitalize on their revolutionary momentum, the administration dismisses them, as it should deal with their diplomatic consequences.”
In a signal of how Western ties with Iran have thawed, Britain reopened its embassy in Tehran in August. The nuclear deal also prompted a flurry of European visits aimed at positioning for the end of Iran’s economic isolation.
Iranian police have already announced the arrest of 50 people for the attack on the Saudi mission. However, in previous cases the rioters have been detained for a few days and released without facing any charges.
“In the case of the British Embassy, we are not aware of any legal action taking place against the aggressors,” said Rassam. “Although months later [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei criticized the move, the attackers walked free, and nothing happened to them more than a gentle slap on the hand.”
The Iranian government has distanced itself from the attack, saying the protesters entered the Saudi Embassy despite widespread efforts by the police to stop them.
Al Jazeera and Reuters