Britain warns Iran of 'strong response'

Miliband calls arrest of some 9 embassy employees unacceptable kind of "harassment and intimidation."

solana, mitchell, ban 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
solana, mitchell, ban 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Sunday demanded the release of Iranian British Embassy employees detained by Iranian authorities in Teheran, warning Iran that "continued harassment will be met by a strong and united EU response." Miliband said "about nine" employees were detained Saturday and that four had been released. The British minister described the step as "harassment and intimidation of a kind that is quite unacceptable," and flatly rejected Iranian claims that the embassy employees were involved in anti-government protests in the country. In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said any further harassment of British Embassy employees would be met with "a strong and united EU response." She declined to comment on whether Britain was considering recalling its ambassador in protest or for consultations. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said EU ministers - who met separately after the OSCE talks on Sunday afternoon - expressed support for Britain over the detained embassy officials. "We have an agreement which reaffirms solidarity among member states particularly to the British authorities about the arrests," Frattini said. He added that EU nations had also agreed to discuss a common visa policy for Iranians seeking to flee violence at home. Italy already has granted a number of visas to protesters in Iran who want to escape the crackdown. Earlier Sunday, Iranian media reported that authorities had detained eight local employees of the British Embassy in Teheran for what was described as their alleged role in post-election protests. Iran has accused the West of stoking unrest following a bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, singling out Britain and the US for alleged meddling. Last week, Iran expelled two British diplomats, prompting the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from Britain. The semi-official Iranian Fars news agency reported Sunday that eight local employees of the British Embassy in Teheran were detained. The eight were suspected of having played a "significant role" in the recent unrest, Fars said in a report also cited by Iran's English-language, state-run Press TV. The arrests announced Sunday come after a senior Iranian cleric, Ahmed Khatami, lashed out on Friday at Britain in a nationally televised sermon. "In this unrest, Britons have behaved very mischievously and it is fair to add the slogan of 'down with England' to the slogan of 'down with USA,'" he said. Contrastingly, the EU remained eager to restart talks with Iran on the country's nuclear program despite its crackdown on protesters following the presidential elections, the bloc's foreign policy chief said Sunday. Javier Solana said the EU did not want to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, but would continue its criticism of the conduct of the security forces and the arrests of demonstrators. Still, the EU also wants to leave the door open for the resumption of the dialogue with Teheran on its nuclear program, he said. Iran's rulers have unleashed club-wielding militiamen to crush street protests and have arrested hundreds of journalists, students and activists. A special court is to try protesters, and Khatami demanded harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for those found guilty. Despite the clampdown, Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi signaled he is not dropping his political challenge. In a new statement, he insisted on a repeat of the election and rejected a partial recount being proposed by the government. Still, Mousavi's challenge seemed largely aimed at maintaining some role as an opposition figure. The latest statement by Mousavi, who is increasingly isolated in the past week, appeared Sunday on Ghalamnews, a Web site run by supporters. Mousavi-related Web sites have frequently been blocked by the government, and one was shut down by hackers last week. Iran's top electoral body, the 12-member Guardian Council, has proposed recounting 10 percent of the votes. On Friday, the council offered to bring in six more political figures to oversee a partial recount, presumably to give the effort greater legitimacy in the eyes of the challengers. However, Mousavi reiterated his demand for nullification as "the most suitable solution to restore public confidence." He called for independent arbiters to settle the dispute. Another defeated candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, also expressed doubt that a fair review is possible. "How is it possible to answer controversies through counting some ballots?" he wrote in a letter to the Guardian Council, published Sunday in his newspaper, Etemad-e-Melli. A third candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, said he would only send a representative to the council, for observation of a re-count, if the other two candidates did the same.