On Saturday, January 2, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister summoned the Iranian ambassador to Riyadh to his office, where he announced that based on international law, the Iranian government was responsible for the recent attacks against the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad. Even if Iran argues it was only protecting its national security, this is not valid under these international laws. 

According to international agreements to which Iran is a signatory, the government in Tehran is responsible for the security of diplomatic missions located in its country — and, crucially, for the safety of the people working there. It must offer full protection to these individuals, ensuring that they do not endure any harm or violence.

Violent protests erupted outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad after Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. But is not the first time that the Iranian government has failed to respond to attacks on diplomatic buildings and the missions they represent. On November 4, 1979, the group Students Following the Line of Imam occupied the United States embassy in Tehran for 444 days, and, on November 29, 2011, the paramilitary Basiji group attacked the British embassy. 

These occupations and attacks have taken place despite the fact that Iran accepts the principles of diplomatic immunity and is required to respect them, and despite the fact that Iranian diplomats and high officials enjoy this immunity and protection in other countries. 

The term “immunity” means that, under international law, high-level officials of one country enjoy privileges when they are in another country, including protection against attacks, prosecution and trial. It also means that they must be protected in the course of carrying out their official duties.

Immunity from attacks means that all the property, belongings, material and non-material possessions, including buildings, national symbols and the flag of the country, must be respected by the country hosting the embassy or consulate. People working there must be protected from any and all violence. This immunity also extends to the life, property, offices and residences, and the families of high-level officials.

Rules of immunity for diplomats, their families and diplomatic missions was defined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. (Read the convention in PDF.) Iran ratified the convention on February 3, 1965.

According to Article 22 of this convention:

“1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of mission.

“2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

“3. The premises of the mission, their furnishing and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.”

In addition to this convention, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, dated December 14, 1973, and to which Iran is a signatory, further emphasizes the points above. (Read the PDF here.) According to Article 1 (b) of this convention: “Any representative or official of a State or any official or other agent of an international organization of an intergovernmental character who, at the time when and in the place where a crime against him, his official premises, his private accommodation or his means of transport is committed, is entitled pursuant to international law to special protection from any attack on his person, freedom or dignity, as well as members of his family forming part of his household.”

Furthermore, Article 2 of this convention declares that the signatories must consider the intentional commission of the following as crimes punishable by appropriate penalties “which take into account their grave nature”:

“(a) A murder, kidnapping and other attack upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person;

“(b) A violent attack upon the official premises, the private accommodations or the means of transport of an internationally protected person likely to endanger his person or liberty;

“(c) A threat to commit any such attack;

“(d) An attempt to commit any such attack; and

“(e) An act constituting participation as an accomplice in any such attack…”


And…there are no exceptions

These two conventions make no exceptions: Diplomatic missions must be safe from intrusion. International norms consider diplomatic immunity as unconditional. This means that the host government cannot use the excuse of conspiracy against national security to intrude into or occupy an embassy without the consent of diplomats.

This is why the Iranian government was eventually held responsible for what happened in 1979. On May 4, 1980, following a complaint by the United States, the International Court of Justice held the Islamic Republic of Iran responsible for the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran. “The Court finds that Iran, by committing successive and continuing breaches of the obligations laid upon it by the Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963, the 1955 Treaty, and the applicable rules of general international law, has incurred responsibility towards the United States,” declared the court in its verdict. “As a consequence, there is an obligation on the part of the Iranian State to make reparation for the injury caused to the United States.”

It is clear that the immunity of diplomats and diplomatic missions is different from and goes much further than the protection granted to individual citizens and their properties. Article 22 of the Islamic Republic Constitution states that the “dignity, life, property, rights, residence, and occupation of the individual are inviolate, except in cases sanctioned by law.” Based on this article, in certain situations the sanctity of individuals and their properties can be legally taken away. But this does not apply to diplomats and embassies, and no domestic law can violate their immunity.

The Islamic Penal Code of Iran generally recognizes this distinction. According to Article 516 of this code, “anyone who makes an attempt on the life of a foreign Head of State, or its Diplomatic Representative, in the jurisdiction of Iran” will be punished. And Article 517 states that anyone “who publicly insults a foreign Head of State, or its Diplomatic Representative, who enter the territory of Iran, shall be sentenced to one-month’s imprisonment.”

The purpose of diplomatic immunity is respect for the sovereignty of nations. According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, any government, including the Islamic Republic must: (1) Prevent its own agents from intrusion into diplomatic missions and from occupying them; (2) Protect embassies from attacks by ordinary people and; (3) Punish the violators if an attack occurs.

So when extremist gangs attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the Iranian government was immediately responsible. Besides punishing the attackers, it must accept responsibility for its dereliction of duty in protecting the embassy and its people. 


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