Britain has ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the UK within 48 hours and shuttered its ransacked embassy in Tehran, in a significant escalation of tensions between Iran and the West.
The ouster of the entire Iranian diplomatic corps deepens Iran’s international isolation amid growing suspicions over its nuclear program.
At least four other European countries also moved to reduce diplomatic contacts with Iran.
The British measures were -announced on Wednesday by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said Britain had withdrawn its entire diplomatic staff after angry mobs stormed the British embassy compound and a diplomatic residence in Tehran, hauling down Union Jack flags, torching a vehicle and tossing looted documents through windows.
The hours-long assault on Tuesday was reminiscent of the chaotic seizure of the US embassy in 1979. Protesters replaced the British flag with a banner in the name of a 7th-century Shiite saint, Imam Hussein, and one looter showed off a picture of Queen Elizabeth II apparently taken off a wall.
“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,” Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
The diplomatic fallout from the attack quickly spread to other Western countries with embassies in Iran. Norway said it was temporarily closing its embassy as a precaution and Germany, France and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors for consultations. Italy said it was considering such a recall.
Iran has 18 diplomats in Britain. About 24 British embassy staff and dependents were based in Tehran.
The White House condemned the attacks and spokesman Josh Earnest said the US backed Britain’s ejection of Iranian diplomats.
EU foreign ministers were to meet yesterday to consider possible new sanctions against Tehran.
France’s budget minister, Valerie Pecresse, said the EU should consider a total embargo on Iranian oil or a freeze on Iranian central bank holdings. British officials said the UK would likely support new measures against Iran’s energy sector.
Hague claimed those involved in Tuesday’s attack were members of a student group allied with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s paramilitary Basij organization, which recruits heavily on university campuses.
“We should be clear from the outset that this is an organization controlled by elements of the Iranian regime,” he said.
Hague said the private quarters of staff and Britain’s ambassador were trashed in the attack and that diplomats’ possessions were stolen.
“This is a breach of international responsibilities of which any nation should be ashamed,” he said.
Some were alarmed by Hague’s tough tone. David Miliband, Britain’s former foreign secretary, said he hoped the robust words would not become “part of the very unwelcome drumbeat of war.”
Iran’s government has publicly expressed regret about the “unacceptable behavior” of the protesters, whose attacks began after anti-British demonstrations apparently authorized by authorities.
However, regime hardliners have spoken out in support of the protesters, reflecting the deepening power struggle over which direction Iran might take in the future.