12 January 2016

On 2 January there were well-publicised attacks on Saudi missions in Iran by mobs angered by the execution of the important Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This prompted the Saudi government to break diplomatic relations with Iran, and shortly afterwards the Iranian government claimed that the Saudis had retaliated by launching an air strike on its own diplomatic mission in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, which is controlled by pro-Iranian Houthis. However, the press coverage of the incidents in Iran left something to be desired, as did the Iranian government’s account of the fate of its embassy in Yemen. First, serious and lamentable though the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate-general in Mashhad certainly were (see UN Security Council press release), there is no evidence that they were completely ‘ransacked’ and then ‘torched’, although this was widely reported at the time – in the case of the embassy itself, only an annex appears to have been invaded and set alight. Second, after an initial lapse in honouring their obligation to guard such premises, the Iranian authorities – clearly keen to shake off Iran’s reputation for treating embassy-bashing as a national sport – soon prevented further damage; and the security deputy to Tehran’s governor-general shortly afterwards paid for the lapse with his job. Third, while added plausibility that the Saudis intended to attack the Iranian embassy in Sana’a is provided by their belief that it serves as a vital agency of support to the Houthi rebels, only trivial damage is said to have been inflicted on the building by shrapnel flying from a strike on a neighbouring property, although one or more embassy guards standing outside (probably Yemeni) are reported to have been wounded by the blast.

The breach in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is deeply worrying. However, some comfort might be drawn not only from the fact that the extent and savagery of the attacks on their diplomatic premises have clearly been exaggerated but also from the reflection that, despite longstanding and bitter enmity, up to this point there had remained an Iranian embassy in Riyadh as well as a Saudi embassy in Tehran. This holds out the promise that the extra-regional arm-twisting now going on to get them to restore diplomatic relations might not be a completely lost cause. For those generally interested in the role of embassies in circumstance such as these, see my recently published Embassies in Armed Conflict.