Authorities in Tehran have detained eight local British embassy staff, Iranian media said yesterday, underscoring the hardline leadership’s effort to blame post-election unrest on foreign powers, not popular anger.
Britain called the action “harassment and intimidation” and demanded the release of all the embassy employees still held.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced what he called “interfering statements” by Western officials following Iran’s disputed presidential election, state media reported.
“If the [Iranian] nation and officials are unanimous and united, then the temptations of international ill-wishers and interfering and cruel politicians would no longer have an impact,” state radio quoted Khamenei as saying.
“By voicing absurd opinions on Iran, they speak in a way as if all their problems have been resolved and it is only Iran’s problems that remain,” Iran’s clerical ruler said.
The West and Iran are at odds over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as well as its handling of the unrest. The US, Britain and their allies have long urged Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment they suspect is aimed at bomb-making. Iran says its nuclear aims are entirely peaceful.
Khamenei on June 19 called Britain the “most treacherous” of Iran’s enemies and accused it of orchestrating an unprecedented outpouring of protest after the June 12 poll.
The streets of Tehran have sunk back into a sullen calm after riot police and religious basij militia crushed huge demonstrations in which at least 20 people were killed.
“Everybody is depressed, everybody is afraid,” said a Mousavi voter in his 20s in northern Tehran.
The authorities, while taking tough action to snuff out any embers of protest, have repeatedly accused Britain and the US of inciting the turmoil. Both countries deny it.
“Eight local employees at the British embassy who had a considerable role in recent unrest were taken into custody,” the semi-official Fars news agency said, without saying when.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said about nine employees had been detained, but some had been freed.
“We are still concerned about a number of them who to our knowledge have not been released,” he told reporters at an international conference in Corfu. “This is harassment and intimidation of a kind that is quite unacceptable.”
“The idea that the British embassy is somehow behind the demonstrations and protests that have been taking place in Tehran in recent weeks is wholly without foundation,” he said.
The detentions will further strain ties between London and Tehran. They have already expelled two of each other’s diplomats since the election, which stirred Iran’s most spectacular display of internal dissent since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
A Western diplomat said Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies had achieved a short-term victory and were now determined to press their advantage.
“It is a system which has been challenged and which now strikes back,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
Official results showing hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election by a landslide were met with disbelief by many Iranians who agreed with complaints by the runner-up, Mirhossein Mousavi, who said the vote was rigged.
Mousavi has repeated demands for the election to be rerun, in defiance of Khamenei who declared the poll fair, but he appears to have dwindling options for any further challenge.