Britain slams Iran over culture centre closure
AFP – February 5, 2009
Britain accused Iran of intimidating its staff after closing its main cultural centre in Tehran, in the latest flare-up of tension between the two countries.
The British embassy in Tehran on Thursday expressed regret over the move, which added to tensions already strained over Iran's nuclear programme.
But the British Council said it had "no choice" but to act after Iranian authorities summoned most of its 16 local staff for "interviews" in December and "suggested to them that they should resign from their posts".
The cultural organisation said two members of staff had their passports confiscated after they tried to leave the country to go to a meeting, prompting the organisation to suspend all operations in Iran on January 31.
"These actions by the Iranian authorities are unacceptable," British Council chief executive Martin Davidson said late Wednesday.
"They are designed to pressurise our staff with the clear intention of stopping our cultural and educational work in the country."
The British embassy said it hoped the cultural offices could re-open soon.
"With regret, the embassy's cultural and education activities have had to be suspended, as a result of action taken by the Iranian authorities," embassy spokeswoman Mitra Behnam Mojtahedi told AFP.
"We remain committed to developing cultural and educational links between the people of Iran and the UK, and we hope to resume our work as soon as possible," she said.
Davidson said "maintaining open and constructive dialogue between countries is vital during difficult times", and he also voiced hope that operations could resume as soon as possible.
He refused to speculate whether the row was linked to the arrival of a new US president in the White House.
Tensions with the United States and Britain, already high over Iran's nuclear ambitions, increased this week when Iran launched its first satellite.
Washington and London suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a claim Tehran rejects.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appealed Thursday for "bullying" world powers to show politeness in dealing with his country.
"Bullying powers should learn how to speak correctly and be polite so Iran's cultured and peace-loving people listen to them," he said in the northeastern shrine city of Mashhad.
Last month, Iran warned the BBC's Tehran bureau against contributing to the network's newly launched Farsi language television channel, which is banned from operating in Iran.
A major diplomatic row between the two countries erupted in March 2007 when Iran seized a group of 15 British sailors on a navy patrol near the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.
The group was held for nearly two weeks before being released.
British officials insisted the group was carrying out routine anti-smuggling operations in Iraqi waters, but Iran claimed they were in its territory and broadcast apparent confessions from some detainees.
The British Council, while officially an independent non-profit charity, receives a large part of its funding from Britain's Foreign Office.
Last year it fell foul of the Russian authorities amid a diplomatic standoff between Britain and Moscow triggered by the November 2006 radioactive poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko in London.
The authorities in Moscow shut down all but one of its Russian offices in January 2008 amid accusations of tax evasion.
The council, which promotes cultural and educational links, first set up an office in Iran in 1942, but closed in 1979 after the Islamic revolution. It reopened in 2001 at the request of the Iranian authorities.
More than 10,000 Iranians participated in the council's programmes in Tehran over the past two years, according to figures from the Foreign Office released to parliament last month.
Last updated 07/02/2009