Britain shuts Iran embassy, withdraws staff after attack

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Britain expelled Iranian diplomats and shut its embassy in Tehran on Wednesday after the mission was attacked by protesters angry at fresh sanctions against the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.

Foreign Secretary William Hague also accused the Iranian government of tacit support for Tuesday's attack, although he said London would not be cutting off diplomatic ties altogether.

The incursions and Britain's response dramatically heighten tensions between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme, which it insists is for civilian rather than military purposes.

In a speech to parliament, Hague said he had ordered all Iranian embassy staff to leave Britain within 48 hours and closed the mission in London.

He said all Britain-based staff had also been evacuated from the embassy in Iran and the mission had been shut with immediate effect.

"If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here," Hague said.

Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier promised "very tough action" following Tuesday's violent scenes when protesters rampaged for hours through Britain's two diplomatic compounds in Tehran.

They tore down the Union Jack, smashed windows, trashed embassy offices, set documents alight, and briefly blocked the movements of six diplomats.

Iranian police, who initially appeared to do little to prevent the violence, eventually forced the protesters to leave after firing tear gas and clashing with them.

Hague expressed scepticism at what he called the "belated" response by the Iranian authorities.

"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 told the House of Commons.

Despite the embassy closures, the foreign secretary 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 protests in Tehran 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 to expel the British ambassador within days as diplomatic ties were downgraded.

Other countries took action in response to Tuesday's attacks.

Norway announced the temporary closure of its embassy, although its staff remained in Tehran, and other European missions were evaluating the security situation.

Germany, France and Sweden summoned the Iranian envoys to their countries on Wednesday to protest against the incursion, while Italy said it was doing likewise and was thinking about closing its Tehran embassy.

The UN Security Council, the United States, the European Union, France, Germany and even Iran's ally Russia had all condemned the attacks as unacceptable.

In Tehran, 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 other countries should not be concerned, insisting Iran "respects" all treaties protecting foreign diplomats and embassies.

Britain's sanctions against Iran's financial system were announced last week in conjunction with similar measures by the US and Canada following a report by the UN watchdog which crystallised fears about Tehran's nuclear programme.

EU foreign ministers were set to unveil further sanctions at a meeting Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris was looking for a common EU position to apply "maximum pressure", telling L'Express weekly that his country wanted a freeze on Iranian central bank assets and an embargo on Iranian oil.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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