Britain shuts Iran embassy after evacuating staff
Britain closed its Tehran embassy on Wednesday after evacuating all its diplomats from Iran as part of a "very tough" response to the storming of the mission the day before by Iranian protesters.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain had also ordered Iran to vacate its embassy in London by Friday, stressing it did not mean diplomatic ties between the two countries had been entirely cut off.
The pull-out of all British embassy staff from Iran to Dubai in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates was completed by late Wednesday, Western diplomats told AFP.
Britain's moves followed violent scenes Tuesday, when protesters rampaged for hours through its two diplomatic compounds in Tehran.
They tore down the British flag, smashed windows, trashed embassy offices, set documents alight, and briefly blocked the movements of six British diplomats. No British personnel were hurt, having taken refuge in secure areas.
Iranian police, initially inactive, ultimately forced the protesters to leave after firing tear gas and clashing with them.
Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, Hague expressed scepticism at what he called the "belated" response by the Iranian authorities to stop the protesters attacking the compounds.
"The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful."
He said diplomatic ties would continue with Iran, albeit at a much reduced level.
"This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety. It is action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations," Hague said.
The incursions and Britain's response dramatically heighten tensions between the West and Iran over the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear programme.
The protests in Tehran -- which Hague said would not have occurred "without some degree of regime consent" -- had been called to express anger over Britain's announcement last week that it was halting all transactions with Iran's financial system, including its central bank.
Iranian officials this week retaliated by passing a law kicking out the British ambassador and downgrading diplomatic ties. The main anti-British demonstration was called at the same time.
Other European missions were Wednesday evaluating the security situation in the Iranian capital. Norway announced the temporary closure of its embassy, though its staff remained in Tehran.
International condemnation of the violent incursions was fierce and broad.
The UN Security Council, the United States, the European Union, France, Germany and even Iran's ally Russia all slammed them as unacceptable.
British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed that, following the diplomats' evacuation, "very tough action" would be taken against Iran.
Officials in Tehran were contrite or defiant over the protesters' actions.
Iran's foreign ministry expressed "regret" over the incident, and deputy police chief Ahmad Reza Radan was quoted by IRNA state news agency as saying a number of protesters had been arrested and others were being sought.
But parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani defended the protesters, saying they had been "angered by the British government's behaviour" and "decades of domineering moves by the British in Iran."
The UN condemnation was "hasty," he told lawmakers, according to state television.
The head of parliament's security and foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said Iran "respects" all treaties protecting foreign diplomats and embassies.
"This issue must in no way cause concern for other diplomats and embassies," he was quoted as saying by IRNA.
Britain's sanctions against Iran's financial system were announced last week in conjunction with similar measures by the United States and Canada.
Although protests against Western embassies are frequent in Tehran, the storming of the British embassy was by far the worst since 1979, when Islamic students broke into the US embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
That act resulted in the breaking of all diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran.
An EU foreign ministers meeting was to be held Thursday to unveil further sanctions on Iran.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris was looking for a common EU position to apply "maximum pressure" on Iran over its nuclear programme.
France wanted to see a freeze on Iranian central bank assets and an embargo on Iranian oil, Juppe told the news weekly L'Express.
Western nations believe Iran is using its nuclear programme to develop atomic weapons. Those fears were crystallised in a report by the UN nuclear watchdog in mid-November.
Iran has repeatedly denied the programme has a military component, and has warned it will respond to any attack by raining missiles on Israel and Turkey.
© 2011 AFP