The hours-long assault on the British Embassy — in chaotic scenes reminiscent of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 — could push frayed diplomatic ties toward the breaking point.
Chants called for the closure of the embassy and called it a "spy den" — the same phrase used after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and held 52 hostages for 444 days. In the early moments of that siege, protesters tossed out papers from the compound and pulled down the U.S. flag. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since then.
It was not clear if Tuesday's embassy assault was purposefully designed to mirror the storming of the U.S. Embassy. But Iran's post-1979 revolutionary leaders have always harbored a special antipathy toward Britain, commonly regarded as the older cousin of the United States.
Tensions with Britain date back to the 19th century when the Persian monarchy gave huge industrial concessions to London, which later included significant control over Iran's oil industry. In 1953, Britain and the U.S. helped organized a coup that overthrew a nationalist prime minister and restored the pro-Western shah to power.
In recent years, Iran was angered by Britain's decision in 2007 to honor author Salman Rushdie with a knighthood. Rushdie went into hiding after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to kill him because his novel The Satanic Verses allegedly insulted Islam.
In March 2007, Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines for allegedly entering the country's territorial waters in the Gulf — a claim Britain denies. The 15 were released after nearly two weeks in captivity.
Now, it the source of tension is harsher sanctions on Iran imposed by the U.S. and the European Union on Nov. 21 after the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency released a report on Nov. 8 that said Iran might be working on a nuclear weapon and missile delivery system.
Iran has denied those accusations and insists that its nuclear program is peaceful. It has called the U.N. report a false and shameful propaganda display done at the behest of the U.S. and its allies.
The sanctions imposed by Britain were considered the most severe because they required that all contacts with the Iranian Central Bank be severed, a step that other countries, including the United States, did not take.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.