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MID: Iranian cleric threatens trial for British embassy staff

By Hiedeh Farmani
Sat Jul 4 04:50:15 EST 2009

TEHRAN, July 3 AFP - A powerful Iranian cleric says British embassy local staff arrested for allegedly stoking post-election unrest will be put on trial, a move that's prompted coordinated protests from European governments.

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said on Friday he's "urgently seeking clarification" about the announcement as governments across the 27-nation European Union called in Iranian ambassadors.

"In these incidents, their embassy had a presence, some people were arrested. Naturally they will be put on trial, they have made confessions," Ahmad Jannati, head of Iran's Guardians Council, said at Friday prayers.

A total of nine local staff were initially arrested late last month, but the British government said seven have now been released, while Iranian state television has said only one remains in custody.

Miliband said he was "deeply concerned" about British staff being detained.

"We have noted the remarks by Ayatollah Jannati suggesting that some of our local staff in Iran may face trial," he said in a statement.

"We are urgently seeking clarification from the appropriate Iranian authorities. I intend to speak to Foreign Minister (Manouchehr) Mottaki.

"We are confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behaviour. We remain deeply concerned about the two members of our staff who remain in detention in Iran."

Tehran accused the embassy employees of instigating riots in the unrest that erupted over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which his rivals said was fraudulent and marred by widespread irregularities.

Jannati, who is close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a strong Ahmadinejad supporter, said the country's "enemies" had been plotting a "velvet revolution" in the Islamic republic.

He said London had predicted "street riots" around the June 12 election and had warned Britons to stay away from public places.

He did not say how many would go on trial or disclose the charges.

Khamenei has described Britain, which has long had turbulent relations with Iran and a lengthy history of mistrust, as the "most evil" of its enemies.

EU governments called in Iranian envoys in protest at the action against the British embassy staff, a source close to the Swedish EU presidency said.

"We are summoning the Iranian ambassadors throughout the European Union and we will be monitoring the situation next week concerning the local personnel from the British embassy," the source told AFP. "All options remain open."

Iran lashed out at the West for "meddling" after an international outcry over the election and the repression of opposition protests, in the most serious crisis since the 1979 revolution.

At least 20 people were killed in street violence and many hundreds were rounded up by the authorities.

Britain appears to have replaced the United States, often dubbed "the Great Satan" by Iranian leaders, as Tehran's top foe in the wake of the election.

Last month, Mottaki said Iran may downgrade ties with Britain, after the two governments expelled each other's diplomats. Tehran has also expelled the BBC correspondent and arrested a British-Greek reporter.

Iranian officials have been particularly angered by this year's launch of the BBC's Persian satellite channel, which they accuse of fanning the flames in the election dispute.

The roots of mutual distrust date back to the 1800s when Iran, then Persia, was trapped in the colonial rivalry between Russia and Britain.

In 1953, nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA-organised coup with support from British operatives after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian oil company, the forerunner to British Petroleum.

Diplomatic relations were severed when the British mission in Tehran was closed in 1980 after British special forces stormed the Iranian embassy in London to end a hostage siege.

A 1989 fatwa by Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against British writer Salman Rushdie sparked a new rupture in ties that were only restored in 1999.

In 2007, Iran seized 15 British navy personnel on patrol in waters between Iraq and Iran and held them for 12 days.