Iran faces increased isolation after attack on British Embassy

Thomas Erdbrink – Washington Post November 30, 2011

Iran is rapidly heading for increased isolation from Western countries, as the European Union is set to decide during a crucial meeting Thursday in Brussels to downgrade relations, diplomats said Wednesday.

A well-organized attack by Iranian hard-liners Tuesday on two British diplomatic compounds in Tehran set off a series of retaliatory moves in which Britain on Wednesday withdrew its diplomats from Iran and ordered the closure of the Iranian Embassy in London within 48 hours.

“If any country makes it impossible to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Iran, in return, officially ordered all British diplomats out of the country, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

Other Western countries expressed disapproval over the storming of the British Embassy compound and a diplomatic residential compound in northern Tehran. Germany, one of Iran’s largest trading partners, recalled its ambassador “for consultations,” as did France, Italy and the Netherlands. Norway, not a member of the European Union, closed its embassy for the day, citing “security reasons.” Australia and Canada are considering their options, diplomatic sources said.

But the main decision on how to respond to the events in Tehran will come Thursday in Brussels, when foreign ministers of the 27-member European Union hold a scheduled meeting on Iran.

There, options range from reducing embassy staff to withdrawing ambassadors and possibly closing all of the member states’ embassies in Iran. But Western diplomats and politicians warn that any severing of relations would be a perilous choice for both the E.U. and Iran at a time when tensions over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program are high.

“This is what is on the table,” said one European diplomat following a meeting of European ambassadors in Tehran. “Now the politicians must decide.”

One diplomat visited the British Embassy grounds Wednesday to search for the British ambassador’s dog, which was found. The diplomat said damage to the buildings was extreme.

“The place had been systematically ransacked, paintings were destroyed and furniture was broken,” the diplomat said. “We have concluded that the attack had been extremely well coordinated by the authorities,” he said.

Security forces initially allowed groups of young men armed with sticks to pillage the diplomatic compounds Tuesday and to briefly detain six embassy staffers.

Members of the volunteer Basij militia smashed windows, set fires and hurled satellite dishes from a roof in the embassy compound while police looked on. The angry demonstrators, who numbered about 300, were denouncing Britain’s decision to impose harsh sanctions on Iran in response to new revelations about the Islamic Republic’s efforts to acquire technology that could be used to build nuclear weapons. The attack brought back memories of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

“We are clearly going to see a much tougher stance by the Europeans toward Iran following this event,” said one Tehran-based Western diplomat. “After the Brits were ransacked, the E.U. has no other choice but to stand up against Iran,” said the diplomat, who, like others interviewed, asked not to be named

At the same time, the embassy compound attacks play into the hands of those opposing all contact with the West, the diplomat said. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “does not want this crisis,” he said.

While Ahmadinejad has remained silent on Tuesday’s events, the attackers were lauded Wednesday by several supporters of the hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders who oppose the president.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament and former nuclear top negotiator, said the demonstrators represented Iranians’ feelings toward Britain.

“They say that the students’ behavior was ‘shameful,’ ” Larijani told reporters Wednesday, referring to British reactions to the storming of the compounds. “It is the British government’s behavior which is shameful because they have behaved in a hostile manner toward our people for the past five decades,” he added, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Some Iranians were happy that the British were leaving.

“Let them go,” said Ahmad Bakhshayeshi Ardestani, an influential analyst who is running for parliament. “They will return to Iran because the United Kingdom needs Iran more than it needs them.”

One parliamentarian, Mehdi Mehdizadeh, suggested that the European Union could make do with a single embassy in Tehran, representing all 27 member nations.

But another lawmaker, Mohammad Mehdi Shahryari, said the storming of the British Embassy violated diplomatic norms and was “a mistake.”

As a group, European nations are the third-largest buyers of Iranian oil and have traditionally acted as intermediaries when the Islamic Republic has tried to reach out to the United States, with which it has no diplomatic relations.

Catherine Ashton, the E.U. foreign policy chief, has worked to facilitate talks between the the world’s major powers and Iran on the Iranian nuclear program.

One nation that especially welcomes any E.U. moves against Iran is Israel. “Any steps that further isolate Iran are good for us, and good for the world,” said a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is what Iran does without nuclear weapons. Imagine what they would do with nuclear weapons.”

The E.U. already has decided to add 219 Iranians to a list of sanctioned individuals, saying they have engaged in nuclear activities or violated human rights .

On the agenda at Thursday’s E.U. meeting were new sanctions against Iran, although the bloc was not expected to go as far as Britain, which unilaterally sanctioned Iran’s central bank last week, sparking Wednesday’s attacks.

“But we might very well see the complete pulling out of all European Union nations from Iran tomorrow,” said one European politician familiar with the matter. If one influential member nation called for such a move, others could follow, the politician said. “I am extremely worried, as things are now moving so rapidly and we don’t know where this will end.”

Correspondent Anthony Faiola in London and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report