Following the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, January 2, a one-line notice appeared on an Iranian website called Officers of the Soft War. Posted at 5:00 PM, it read, “At 15:00 on Sunday all gather in front of the Al-Zion Stable in Tehran.” The “Al-Zion Stable” was the site’s pejorative term for the Saudi embassy.
The website is an important news and propaganda site for hardline supporters of Iran’s political system. The notice followed its publication of pictures of protests that led to an attack on the Saudi consulate in Mashhad.
But according to another Iranian site, the Tasnim News Agency, some protesters had already gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by the time the notice went online. They were calling the Saudi royal family “jackals of the Zionists.”
Iran’s Diplomatic Police, who are responsible for protecting diplomatic missions, ended that round of protests. Some of them began to paint over the anti-Saudi graffiti on the embassy walls. Pictures show that by 5:00 PM, at least three layers of Diplomatic Police were protecting the embassy.
But five hours later, the embassy was deserted. It seems embassy staff had predicted that another attack was on its way. But the Diplomatic Police either had no inkling of this, or did not want to show that it knew what would happen next.
At 10:00 PM demonstrators launched a new attack.
Most of the protesters were young, and many carried posters of al-Nimr, one of 47 men executed by the Saudi government on Saturday. Some were armed with stones or bows and arrows, and had covered their faces with Arabic keffiyehs—patterned cloths often associated with Palestinian protestors.
Members of the crowd then set the embassy alight with Molotov cocktails. Photographs from the scene show no shortage of the Diplomatic Police, but one policeman was quoted on social media saying, “we have been told not to obstruct them too much.”
At 11:00 PM the protesters broke through the gates and poured into the embassy and vandalized it. Some took pictures of documents lying around and others took souvenir selfies.
While attackers managed to ransack the office of Ambassador Ali Hasan Jafar, hardline agitators later complained online that a picture of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was left on the wall.
Outside the building, protesters were in fact busy burning portraits of Salman.
They only stopped short of burning the Saudi flag because of the Islamic script on the flag, which reads, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.”
One hour after the first pictures of the attack appeared online, the Diplomatic Police forced the attackers out of the embassy.
Half an hour later commander of Tehran Police announced that a number of them had been arrested and would be charged.
“Soon the White House”
On Sunday, Officers of the Soft War posted a picture of students climbing the walls of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, and next to it, a picture of protesters climbing the wall of the Saudi embassy on Saturday.
One post from a protester is now being forwarded on Telegram channels. He has taken a smiling selfie, and is flashing a victory sign. “Us and a burned-out embassy,” the caption reads. “God willing very soon we will have a picture like this next to the White House. We will hit Haifa with missiles.”
Online, pro-regime supporters online, especially those on Google+, are treating the attack with caution. They are worried that Saudi Arabia will accuse the Iranian regime of being behind the attack. They are also worried that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tell them that what they have done was wrong—as he did when they occupied the British embassy in 2011.
Today Khamenei harshly condemned the Saudi government for executing al-Nimr but made no mention of the embassy attack. It took Khamenei several months to react to the attack on the British embassy, and this may be the case again.
The Saudi-Iranian Cold War
The attack on the Saudi embassy has put the two countries on the brink of breaking diplomatic relations.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have broken their diplomatic relations twice before, and each time the break lasted for four years.
The first time was in 1941 when an Iranian on the pilgrimage to Mecca was beheaded. The second time was in 1987 when hundreds of pilgrims died in a melee during the Hajj ceremonies. Now, the execution of al-Nimr has once again brought relations to a breaking point.
The Saudi government has claimed that the Sheikh al-Nimr was involved in a conspiracy and his execution was religiously justified.
On Sunday, Khamenei sharply criticized the Saudi government. “This innocent cleric neither encouraged people to take up arms nor he was involved in a secret conspiracy,” said Khamenei. “The only thing he did was public criticism…out of his religious faith.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani strongly condemned the Saudi action, but also explicitly condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy. He asked the judiciary and the government authorities to take action against those responsible.
“We must put an end to such dreadful actions forever,” he said. “The security of all diplomatic missions to the Islamic Republic must be guaranteed.”
On Sunday Iranian media quoted Tehran’s prosecutor saying that 40 people involved in the attack had been arrested. Mashhad’s prosecutor also announced that four people had been arrested for attacking the Saudi consulate in that city.
Another demonstration to protest al-Nimr’s execution has been called for Sunday in Tehran’s Palestine Square, but the Tehran Governor’s Office has declared it illegal.
According to Al-Arabia’s Persian language site, the Saudi Foreign Ministry has summoned the Iranian ambassador and has lodged a strong protest against the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
There are also reports that the Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been expelled, but the Iranian Foreign Ministry has denied the reports.
In a letter to the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy asked for a revision to the relations between the two countries.
Over the past 20 months, Saudi Arabia has not been represented by an ambassador in Tehran. Three weeks ago the media reported that the Saudi government had named Jafar, its former ambassador to Russia, as its new ambassador to Iran.
There are also reports that behind the scenes Iranian and Saudi foreign ministry officials have been negotiating to repair their diplomatic relations, which have deteriorated almost day by day over the past three years.
Now, news of the execution of al-Nimr has overshadowed everything else.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in at least four proxy conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. The execution of al-Nimr will not alter the equations in these conflicts, but is bound to make them more difficult to solve.