EU unites to warn Tehran over arrest of British embassy staff

Author: By Lewis Smith

The Foreign Office refused to discuss the roles and positions of the staff despite claims they were all members of the political section, one being a senior adviser responsible for briefing the ambassador and other diplomats on Iran’s internal politics. The Iranian authorities accused them of playing “a remarkable role” in the protests over the presidential election results. Four of the arrested workers were released by yesterday afternoon but officials were still waiting for word about the others.

More than 100 people work at the British embassy in Tehran, of whom more than 70 are employed locally. Officials are trying to clarify what protection such staff are afforded by the Vienna Convention.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, roundly denounced the arrests as “harassment and intimidation of a kind that is quite unacceptable” and lodged an official protest to the Iranian authorities. He strongly denied that the embassy had been involved in organising the demonstrations, which are thought to have claimed at least 20 lives since the 12 June election.

“The idea that the British embassy is somehow behind the demonstrations and protests that have been taking place in Tehran in recent weeks is wholly without foundation,” he said. “We have protested in strong terms, directly to the Iranian authorities, about the arrests,” adding: “It’s very important that all countries adhere to diplomatic norms.” Mr Miliband thanked his EU partners for their “unanimous condemnation” of the actions in Tehran.

The European ministers, meeting on the Greek island of Corfu yesterday, issued a statement warning Iran to expect stiff and joint action if there is any attempt to intimidate staff working in any EU embassy in Tehran. They presented a united front to condemn the arrests and the expulsion last week of two British diplomats from Iran. They also expressed renewed concerns about the way the Iranian government has suppressed protests about the election and restricted the movements of reporters trying to follow them.

Jan Kohout, of the Czech Republic which holds the EU presidency, said: “The EU calls on Iran and its authorities to stop hostilities against EU member states as well as [the] EU’s partner countries and their citizens and to release an EU journalist [Iason Athanasiadis, an Anglo-Greek freelance also known as Jason Fowden, who was arrested last week and accused of ‘underground activities’].” Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, added: “Obviously, the regime is trying to preserve its position by very harsh repression. But that cannot hide the fact that this is a weakened regime. It has lost legitimacy both internally and externally.”

Despite the strong warning, the EU remains keen to renew negotiations to end Tehran’s ambitions for nuclear weapons in return for help developing its civilian energy programme.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader who described Britain as “the most treacherous” of Iran’s adversaries, was critical of “interfering statements” by Western officials. He was reported on state radio yesterday as calling for Iranian unity in the face of foreign interference. “If the nation and officials are unanimous and united, then the temptations of international ill-wishers and interfering and cruel politicians will no longer have an impact.”

In the Iranian parliament yesterday, Gholam Meigoli Nejad, a representative, said: “The prates of a number of certain western countries’ leaders will not shake the Iranian nation’s will and resolve.”

Protests began across Iran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared as the winner of the election by a landslide. Mirhossein Mousavi, the opposition leader and runner-up, claims the results were rigged.

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