Was Tehran’s Deputy Governor Fired for Negligence in the Saudi Embassy Mob Incident?

The Interior Minister has released confirmation that Safar Ali Baratlou was dismissed from his position as Deputy Governor for Security Affairs in Tehran for dereliction of duty, because of his failure to protect the Saudi Embassy in Tehran from mob violence. The ransacking of the Saudi Embassy by protesters on January 2, 2016 caused a torrent of international condemnation and led the Sunni-ruled kingdom to sever diplomatic relations with Iran. Senior Iranian figures expressed contrition for the attack, including Supreme Leader Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif.

Safar Ali Baratlou was dismissed from his position on January 8, but it was not until the following day that an Interior Ministry spokesman Hossein Ali Amiri connected his removal to the Embassy attack. Baratlou immediately accused the Interior Ministry of lying, and asserted that the decision to expel him was taken before the Embassy incident.

The ongoing rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia has accelerated at an unprecedented pace. The execution of a prominent Shiite opposition figure in Riyadh earlier on January 2 sparked outrage in Iran. Protests outside Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Tehran quickly turned violent, as participants threw firebombs and stormed the compound before being removed by Tehran police.

Iranian officials ordered investigations into the incident to produce a report within two weeks, but Mr. Baratlou accused the Interior Ministry of making hasty and arbitrary decisions and not waiting for the investigation results.

Based on Iran’s Constitution, the Office of the Governor works under the umbrella of the Interior Ministry and appointments and dismissals fall within the Ministry’s jurisdiction.

On January 9, Tehran’s governor stated that removal of Baratlou had indeed been on the agenda for some time, saying that “the shift in management has nothing to do with the issue of the Saudi Embassy.” In his remarks a few days later the governor took a more cautious approach, saying that any connection between the two issues, in his view, “is out of the question.” He repeatedly stressed that the dismissal of Baratlou had long been in the works.

Baratlou, who was assigned to his position by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated that an “active, radical, and deviant group” within President Rouhani’s administration was putting pressure on him. In its statement, the Interior Ministry denied these allegations, called Baratlou’s comments “unprofessional,” and said that such remarks “can themselves be a cause [for him] to be prosecuted”.

The Interior Ministry’s statement points to the “blame and criticism” that Baratlou has received from “state senior officials” and adds that Baratlou had already received notice that his dismissal was due to his department’s negligence.

Baratlou’s dismissal reveals the government’s determination to confront the elements responsible for the attack on the Saudi Embassy. Baratlou’s position as Deputy Governor for Security Affairs is meant to be central in addressing emergencies such as the Embassy attack.

It seems undeniable that the Embassy incident had a role in the dismissal of the deputy governor for security affairs. The conservative faction opposed to Rouhani has been relatively silent on the issue, suggesting the lack of a political motive behind Baratlou’s sacking. While the Interior Ministry’s announcement was likely true, at a minimum it requires more information and a clearer explanation about the key factors that led to Mr. Baratlou’s dismissal and his direct role in the incident.