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Tue 6 Dec 2011 03:02 PM

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British embassy storming bares rift in Iran elite

Hardliners taking off gloves in fight for upper hand ahead of elections

British embassy storming bares rift in Iran elite
A group of Iranian hardliners burn a British flag during a protest outside the British embassy in Tehran

The
storming of the British Embassy in Tehran has bared a rift in Iran's ruling
elite with conservative hardliners pushing Iran towards global isolation as
they manoeuvre for the upper hand over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of
elections in 2012.

Britain
closed its embassy after Tuesday's incursion by hardline youth and expelled all
Iranian diplomats from London. The fallout for Tehran spread when several other
countries recalled their envoys, including France and Germany.

The
assault occurred a few days after the hardline-dominated parliament passed a
bill obliging the government to downgrade Britain's diplomatic status and expel
its ambassador in reprisal for fresh sanctions imposed on Tehran over its
nuclear activity.

Western
diplomats and some local analysts believe the embassy raid was quietly
orchestrated by hardline isolationist elements of Iran's factionalised power
structure loyal to the clerical supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The
attack was led by members of the radical Islamic Basij militia and two hardline
rivals of Ahmadinejad publicly endorsed it, comments that clashed with an
apology by his foreign ministry.

Their
vocal support reflected the loyalty of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and
speaker of parliament Ali Larijani to Khamenei, who has not yet spoken about
the events.

"The
attack clearly displays the internal political rift ... Foreign pressure has
deepened the rift and there is no unity on the response," said an Iranian
analyst who asked not to be named due to security sensitivities.

High-level
discord in Iran has never been so public but has little to do with its nuclear
row with the West or with the pro-reform opposition, which rejected President
Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election as rigged.

Ahmadinejad
has come under heavy criticism from hardline conservatives and powerful clerics
for unorthodox economic policies seen as inflationary, including spending
petrodollars.

Ahmadinejad
has angered hardline elites further over his efforts to wrest more control of
security and foreign affairs from the clerical establishment under Khamenei.

"Now
the hardline rival camp has taken off the gloves ... This [embassy] attack was
a warning to Ahmadinejad's government ... He will be very busy with this created
international crisis," Sadeghi said.

It would
help ruin the credibility of Ahmadinejad's camp ahead of parliamentary
elections in 2012, analysts say.

"Despite
his harsh anti-Western rhetoric, Ahmadinejad is open to engagement with the
West ... He lost his legitimacy at home after the 2009 vote; by engaging with
the West, he seeks international legitimacy," said analyst Mohsen Sadeghi.

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"A
power struggle between top leaders could shake the Islamic Republic to its
foundations... (and) weaken Ahmadinejad globally."

Iran's
elite Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia have distanced themselves from
Ahmadinejad and remain fiercely loyal to Khamenei.

Some
analysts say Iran's increasing isolation will have a negative impact on
international efforts to push Tehran into suspending sensitive nuclear
activity, which the United States and its allies say is aimed at building
bombs.

Iran,
the world's fifth biggest oil exporter, says it only wants nuclear technology
to generate more electricity for a rapidly growing population.

"This
isolation will not help the West ... Iranians will accuse the West of not
wanting a political solution for the nuclear dispute," said analyst Hamid
Farahvashi.

The
storming, analysts say, resembled the seizure of the US Embassy in Iran shortly
after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when hardline students held 52 Americans
hostage for 444 days -- goading Washington to sever diplomatic ties with
Tehran.

Normally,
the withdrawal of ambassadors is dramatic diplomatic move - but not for Iranian
hardliners.

"Hawks
in Iran and in the West favour tension and crisis ... This could be a
start," said political analyst Ismail Boy at Turkey's Kadir Has
University.

Western
powers have recalled ambassadors from Tehran on three previous occasions: in
1980, when US diplomats were held hostage in Tehran; in 1989, when Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie
for alleged blasphemy of Islam; and 1997, when a Berlin court ruled that Iran's
top political leadership was involved in organising the 1992 murder of four
Iranian exiles in Germany.

In all
three instances, the envoys returned to Tehran within weeks and normal
relations resumed. But there might be a different denouement this time.

"Some
Iranian hardliners might even welcome such a crisis with the international
community to unite the nation and divert attentions from political infighting
and the nuclear dispute," said analyst Boy.

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"More
isolation and harsh responses gives an upper hand to hardliners...and (helps them)
militarise the atmosphere."

Iran
however will want to avoid any escalation into a war with the West that could
be difficult to win and might threaten the clerical establishment's existence,
analysts say.

"They
do not want a confrontation ... Iranians know that a serious confrontation
would run counter to the establishment's interests," said Hamid
Farahvashian. "In charting its next steps, Tehran must take into account
the impact of such moves on its relations with its Gulf neighbours."

"Iran's
muscle-flexing has limits, has a ceiling which it cannot go over," said a
senior Western diplomat in Tehran.

Many
ordinary Iranians were shocked by the crisis with Britain and fear they will suffer.
"It is not good to sever ties ... More isolation means more economic
pressure ... We cannot tolerate it," said housewife Maryam Shabani, 35.

Some
analysts say the United States and its allies are worried about last-ditch
Israeli military action against Iran in the absence of trouble-shooting
diplomacy, and to ward off that risk they have resorted to stiffening
sanctions.

"By
putting more pressure on Iran, the West wants to avoid unilateral Israeli
military action against Iranian nuclear sites," said another analyst who
asked not to be named.

"The
British authorities were looking for an excuse to put more pressure on Iran.
That is why their reaction was harsh."

Analysts
say Tehran is also nervous about a possible spillover of unrest from the Arab world.
Iranian leaders have made clear they will not tolerate any renewal of
anti-government protests, which died down a few months after the 2009 election.

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