Alan Cowell & Stephen Castle – New York Times July 3, 2009
Brushing aside British and European efforts to seek the release of local British Embassy staff members held in Tehran, the Iranian authorities indicated Friday that they planned to put some of them on trial — a move that deepened a diplomatic crisis and could provoke the withdrawal of ambassadors.
In London, the Foreign Office said it was urgently checking reports that the Iranian authorities planned to put two of its local employees on trial. Nine staff members were seized after the unrest sparked by Iran’s disputed presidential elections on June 12.
Hours after the Iranian threat, the European Union seemed to hold back from an out-and-out showdown, resolving to summon Iranian ambassadors in all 27 countries to send “a strong message of protest against the detention of British Embassy local staff and to demand their immediate release,” said a European diplomat who, following European Union rules, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Other measures — such as a ban on issuing visas to Iranian travelers and a pullout of European ambassadors — would be considered depending on how the crisis unfolded, the diplomat said.
The Iranian authorities accused the local employees of fomenting and orchestrating protests, but pro-democracy Iranians ascribed the violence on the streets to a widespread crackdown by government security forces.
In London, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, speaking in return for customary anonymity under civil service rules, said: “We are very concerned by these reports and are investigating. Allegations that our staff are involved in fomenting unrest are wholly without foundation. We will be seeking an urgent explanation from the Iranians.”
Britain has been pressing the European Union to withdraw all its ambassadors from Tehran in protest of the detention of its officials. But other European countries, led by Germany, argued that a withdrawal of envoys would leave them with few diplomatic options if the crisis deteriorated further.
Other possibilities such as a visa ban or withdrawal of ambassadors “are on the table, but there’s agreement on a gradual approach,” the European diplomat said.
The new slump in relations came when Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the influential Guardian Council and an ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told worshipers at Friday Prayers in Tehran that the local employees would be tried after they “made confessions.”
Ayatollah Jannati did not say how many of the British detainees would be tried or what charges they would face, news reports said.
But, in unofficial translations provided by news agencies, he said that the British Embassy had a “presence” in the post-election unrest and that some people had been arrested. It was “inevitable” that they would face trial, he said.
The Guardian Council is an influential panel of 12 clerics whose responsibilities including vetting elections. On Monday it certified the disputed presidential vote that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, despite opposition claims of electoral fraud and huge protests on the streets.
The Iranian authorities have frequently blamed foreigners for the turmoil but have singled out the British as instigators.
At the same time, Tehran has sent mixed signals about the likely fate of the British Embassy employees.
Hassan Qashqavi, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday — the day after the employees were arrested — that Iran was keen to maintain normal diplomatic relations with the European Union, its biggest trading partner. “Reduction of ties is not on our agenda with any European country, including Britain,” he said.
But on Wednesday, the semiofficial Fars news agency said one of the employees, who was not identified by name, “had a remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes.” Iran has also claimed to have unspecified evidence linking British Embassy personnel to the unrest.
The idea of British Embassy staff members on trial recalled some of the images in 2007 when Iranian television paraded some of 15 captured British sailors making what were called confessions that they had entered Iranian territorial waters illegally.
While Ayatollah Jannati is not a member of the government or the judiciary, his words as the head of the Guardian Council and a close associate of the supreme leader carry some weight.
At Friday Prayers — a forum Iran has often used to convey significant political messages — he accused Britain of trying to provoke a “velvet revolution.” As long ago as March, he said, the British Foreign Office had said streets riots were possible during the June elections. “These are signs, revealed by themselves,” he said.
Ayatollah Jannati also said protesters “need to repent and ask God to forgive them.”
Many of the protesters have expressed loyalty to Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister who placed second to Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election, with the official count giving him around a third of the vote.
While challenges on the streets have gradually been suppressed, Mr. Moussavi has maintained his insistence that the outcome of the vote was illegitimate and that the authorities seem determined to maintain pressure on him.
While he did not mention Mr. Moussavi by name, Ayatollah Jannati inferred on Friday that the authorities considered him a traitor. According to The Associated Press, he pointed out that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution whom Mr. Moussavi served as prime minister, once said that “anyone who disrupts unity has not only committed a sin but also has committed treason against the Islamic republic and the system.”
Last updated 07/07/2009