August 01, 2015

Where the streets play political games

In most cities, Embassies are the hosts to long lines of patient visa hunters in the day time, and cocktail parties at night. Usually ostentatious, always in the most expensive part of the city, and often, to be honest, boring. Not in Tehran. Embassies have been the focal point for protest, political games, occupation, death and destruction since 1829.

The occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the taking of American hostages for 444 days, is the most memorable event to many (see here for my photos and description of the embassy today). Although there have also been attacks on the British, Saudi, Danish, French and Iraqi Embassies in recent years. But they were not the first, it all started back in 1829, with the Russians.

My hotel was in the diplomatic district in Tehran. It backed onto the huge Russian Embassy complex. Looking over its high white walls it seemed to contain enough land and buildings to house a small city. The central tower block was massive, and would not have been out of place in Moscow. Although relations between Russia and Iran are currently good, this has not always been the case, and in 1829, in the first recorded attack on a modern embassy on foreign soil, the Persians overran the compound and murdered Ambassador (and noted playwright) Griboyedov. In Laurence Kelly's fascinating 'Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran' he describes the scenes.

After a lull of an hour-and-a-half, during which Griboyedov ordered his Cossacks to man the roof and bolt the doors, the mob appeared outside the embassy in far greater numbers than before. This time many of them carried firearms, the shopkeepers and ragamuffins of the earlier attack having been joined by groups of tribal mercenaries. For a moment, the mullahs held them back, despite the taunts of the Russian soldiers, who were drinking and gesturing on the roof; but an unlucky pistol shot from one of the Cossacks (whom Griboyedov had ordered not to fire) killed one of the crowd, a youth of about sixteen. The body was borne to the mosque, where the mullahs, urged on by the crowd, pronounced a jihad against the entire Russian mission.

The Embassies have also been the subject of political games, perhaps the most interesting being with the British Embassy. In 1981 the Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands died in the H-Block prison in Northern Ireland after 66 days of a hunger strike. The Iran revolutionary government, already experienced in changing many of Tehran's street names that were related to the Shah and his ancestors, decided to commemorate what they saw as a fellow revolutionary standing up to the imperialistic British.

Now changing a street name in Tehran to 'Bobby Sands' would not have even rated even a footnote in most newspapers across the world. Except the street that they chose was the location of the imposing British Embassy, and was formerly known as 'Winston Churchill St'.  The British were not impressed, first trying to ignore the change, then petitioning the government to change it back. Eventually, to avoid the humiliation of having mail addressed to the Embassy on a street named after a person they viewed as a terrorist, the British bricked up the old entrance and knocked a new one through the wall on a side street, Ferdowsi, which became the new address.

Even today the street name remains a thorn in the side of the British. Whenever a British politician visits Tehran the street name is always raised as an issue. But to to the average Iranian now, Bobby Sands, or as his name is phonetically written on the street sign, 'Babi Sandz', is unknown. The political games mean nothing, and his street is just the shortcut to the mobile phone shops on the bustling Jomhouri Avenue beyond.

Far Flung Tips

Unlike the site of the old US Embassy where photography is allowed, the British Embassy is still an active diplomatic mission, and photography is not allowed. Or you have to be quick with the shot!

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