France reduces Tehran embassy staff amid backlash
France is to pull out part of its diplomatic staff from Tehran following the ransacking of Britain's embassy this week by a pro-regime mob, adding to the backlash on Saturday against an increasingly defensive Iran.
The decision -- a temporary precaution according to one French diplomat -- underlined the seriousness of the crisis developing between Iran and the West amid the ratcheting up of sanctions over Tehran's controversial nuclear efforts.
Britain has already evacuated all staff from its Tehran embassy following Tuesday's rampage, and ordered Iran's in London closed.
The expelled Iranian diplomats arrived back in Tehran early on Saturday, passing through airport service corridors to avoid media -- and a pro-regime welcoming crowd of 150 yelling "Death to Britain."
The European Union on Thursday slapped extra sanctions on Iran and warned more could be on the way because of the embassy assault, while the US Congress is poised to pass a law hitting Iran's central bank.
Political tensions are rising in tandem with speculation that Israel is mulling air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, with or without US backing.
France's decision to downsize its diplomatic representation came after the French, German, Dutch and Italian ambassadors were recalled for consultations on the British embassy assault.
More than half of France's personnel, numbering around 30, could be pulled out along with the families and dependants of all its diplomatic staff, according to information gathered by AFP.
Diplomats did not give any precise figures, however.
The 700-strong French community in Tehran -- mostly Iranian-French dual citizens -- has not received any instructions.
The move came despite a warning by Iran to other EU nations not to join Britain's diplomatic retaliation.
"Now the British government is trying to involve other European countries in our bilateral issue. But we have told the Europeans not to trouble relations with Iran because of Britain," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.
Iranian officials have been defiant over the degrading British ties, saying a parliamentary decision before the ransacking of the British embassy to expel Britain's ambassador over strengthened Western sanctions was justified.
But on Saturday, one senior figure sought to disavow any connection between Iran's regime and the hundreds of pro-regime militia members who trashed the embassy and another British diplomatic compound.
"There is no doubt that Britain is one of the oldest enemies of Iran... but young revolutionaries should not go beyond the law," IRNA news agency quoted Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi as saying in a statement.
"I advise them not to act without the permission of the supreme leader and officials."
Shirazi implicitly rejected British assertions the embassy was assaulted with the backing and connivance of the authorities, while warning Iran could be hurt by the backlash.
"It is important to note that sometimes certain actions overstep the law... And we could pay a high price for it," he was quoted as saying.
Britain's evacuated ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, had said the attack could not have happened without "the acquiescence and support of the state."
Shirazi's defensive comments seemed for the first time to hint at an effort to halt a rising anti-British campaign in Iran.
But it was unclear whether that stance was shared by other factions in power.
The foreign ministry expressed its "regret" in the wake of the attack.
But parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani justified the rampage as an understandable and legitimate response to "the domineering policy" of Britain.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior government officials have not yet commented on the embassy attack.
Foreign media in Tehran on Thursday were told that covering all anti-British, pro-regime demonstrations was now forbidden -- an unprecedented restriction that adds to many other existing reporting curbs.
As the political and diplomatic situation tautened, so did concerns over Israeli air strikes against Iran along with warnings that such action would be risky with dim prospects of success.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Friday there was no guarantee that air strikes would hit intended targets, saying Iran's sites are "difficult to get at."
In comments at an event organised by a Washington think-tank, he said: "The indication is that at best it (military action) might postpone it (Iran's nuclear programme) maybe by one or possibly two years."
Iran has repeatedly insisted its nuclear programme is purely for civilian purposes, to the scepticism of the West.
© 2011 AFP