Wall Street Journal: Thousands of protesters clashed with security forces at a mosque Sunday in Tehran — marking the first major demonstration after a few days of uneasy calm — as Iran's arrest of local employees of the British Embassy on Saturday escalated tensions with the West.
The Wall Street Journal
By FARNAZ FASSIHI
DUBAI — Thousands of protesters clashed with security forces at a mosque Sunday in Tehran — marking the first major demonstration after a few days of uneasy calm — as Iran's arrest of local employees of the British Embassy on Saturday escalated tensions with the West.
Iranian media Sunday reported nine British Embassy employees had been detained for allegedly playing a role in demonstrations in Tehran protesting the results of the country's presidential elections.
Meanwhile, Mohamad Mostafaei, a lawyer who represents Iranians under the age of 18 facing the country's death penalty, has also been arrested, the organization Stop Child Executions said.
The Guardian Council, a supervising clerical committee, is scheduled to certify the results of the vote Monday. It is widely expected that it will uphold earlier announcements declaring President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of the race by a landslide.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a harsh critic of the current government and a political heavyweight, broke his silence Sunday with a double-edged comment that chilled expectations he might play an influential role in favor of the opposition.
Mr. Rafsanjani called for a fair and thorough examination of complaints about this month's presidential election in Iran, but added that "suspicious hands" were trying to plant a wedge between the public and the Islamic Republic's system, according to Iran's state-controlled news agency, IRNA.
In the election dispute that has roiled Iran for the past three weeks, the regime has consistently fallen back on a familiar narrative: Western powers, namely Britain, with evil intentions are instigating turmoil in Iran.
Hostility between Tehran and London has been mounting in recent days. Last week, Iran expelled two British diplomats from the country. Britain retaliated by expelling two Iranian diplomats.
On Saturday, security forces rounded up the embassy's employees from the political section from their homes and confiscated some of their equipment, such as computers, according to Iranian media. Although no direct charges have been brought, the government has said the Iranians were taking part in planning the recent demonstrations in favor of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said some of the nine who were arrested have been released. A U.K. Foreign Office spokeswoman Sunday said some staff were still being held, but she declined to say how many. She also declined to comment on the circumstances of their arrest.
"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," Mr. Miliband said Sunday. "We have protested in strong terms, directly to the Iranian authorities, about the arrests that took place yesterday."
After a meeting in Greece, European Union Foreign Ministers condemned the expulsion of U.K. diplomats and the detention of British Embassy staff and said that any "harassment or intimidation of foreign or Iranian staff working in embassies will be met with a strong and collective EU response," according to a statement released by Britain's foreign office.
Mr. Miliband said Tehran hasn't responded.
Iran's mistrust of the U.K. stretches back to centuries and is rooted in Great Britain's attempts to use Iran as a buffer zone to keep Russia out of India. Britain's oil interests in Iran stirred conflict in the 20th century.
In 1951, the Iranian government moved to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in which Britain owned a majority stake. Britain and the U.S. retaliated in 1953 by backing a coup that deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and re-installed the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In mid-June, after the election, Mr. Ahmadinejad in a news conference blamed Western nations, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., for deploying their media to Tehran in order to portray a fraudulent image of Iran's elections.
Last week Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word in state matters, called the U.K. "the most evil" of Iran's enemies.
Britain initially reacted moderately to events in Iran, saying Iran should respect media freedoms and avoid violent repressions of protests. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown has recently edged up his rhetoric.
The Obama administration is walking an increasingly tricky diplomatic path on its Iran policy. Mr. Obama has voiced support for Iranian pro-democracy groups that have openly challenged the legitimacy of Mr. Ahmadinejad's reelection. But Mr. Obama has also made it a priority to try to end Iran's nuclear program through negotiations. The U.S. and other countries are concerned that Tehran could use the program to develop atomic weapons.
U.S. officials Sunday suggested that Mr. Obama remained committed to pushing ahead with that diplomatic initiative, but not with Mr. Ahmadinejad as the focus. They suggested any engagement would largely be through multilateral forums, such as the U.N. Security Council, rather than direct U.S.-Iranian talks.
"Ahmadinejad is, in fact, as we well know, not the principal decision-maker when it comes to foreign policy and national security. It is the supreme leader," Susan Rice, the Obama administration's ambassador to the U.N., said in an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation," referring to Mr. Khamenei.
"We've left the door open to bilateral diplomacy, but the choice is really with the Iranians now," she said. However, Mr.Khamenei recently openly endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad's policies, saying they closely reflect his own views — for the first time not making a distinction between his views and Mr. Ahmadinejad's.
Several thousand protestors flocked to the Ghoba Mosque in Tehran on Sunday afternoon to commemorate victims of the recent upheavals. Security forces dispersed the crowd using tear gas and attacking them with batons, according to witnesses.