TEHRAN, Iran -- Hard-line Iranian protesters stormed British diplomatic compounds yesterday, hauling down the Union Jack, torching an embassy vehicle and pelting buildings with petrol bombs in what began as an apparent state-approved show of anger over the latest Western sanctions to punish Tehran for defiance over its nuclear program.
The hours-long assault on the British Embassy and a residential complex for staff, in chaotic scenes reminiscent of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, could push already frayed diplomatic ties toward the breaking point.
Iran's parliament approved a bill Sunday to downgrade relations with Britain, one of America's closest allies with diplomatic envoys in the Islamic Republic.
Calling yesterday's attack "outrageous and indefensible," British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Iran's failure to defend the embassy and its staff was a disgrace and would have "serious consequences."
He said all embassy staff had been accounted for and praised Britain's ambassador to Iran for handling a "dangerous situation with calm and professionalism."
Sorting out whom to blame may be difficult.
The late-afternoon demonstration outside the embassy was organized by pro-government groups at universities and Islamic seminaries, and could not have taken place without official sanction. However, such anti-Western rallies often draw ultraconservative factions such as the basiji, a paramilitary group run by the powerful Revolutionary Guard that is directly controlled by Iran's ruling theocracy.
Riot police initially clashed with mobs in attempts to hold them back, but protesters surged past cordons and scaled the walls at the embassy complex, which they pelted with petrol bombs and stones. Flames shot out of a sport utility vehicle parked outside the brick building, and occupiers tossed papers apparently looted from an office.
"Death to England!" some cried outside the compound in the first significant assault of a foreign diplomatic area in Iran in years.
Inside the compound, protesters replaced the British flag with a banner in the name of a 7th-century Shia saint, Imam Hussein. One man showed a picture of Queen Elizabeth II apparently taken off a wall.