Britain has ordered the closure of the Iranian embassy in London and has shut its embassy in Tehran after the mission was attacked by protesters, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
Hague also accused the Iranian government of involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying it was “fanciful” to suggest that it could not have stopped the mob.
However, he said the embassy closures did not represent a formal severing of ties between Britain and Iran, but simply a downgrading to the “lowest level.”
Hague was speaking to parliament the day after protesters rampaged through two British diplomatic compounds in the Iranian capital, one of which contained its embassy, tearing down the British flag and setting documents alight.
“The Iranian charge (d’affaires) in London is being informed now that we require the immediate closure of the Iranian embassy in London and that all Iranian diplomatic staff must leave the United Kingdom within the next 48 hours,” he announced, to supportive cheers from lawmakers.
To ensure the safety of British staff in Iran, “we have now closed the British embassy in Tehran”, Hague added.
“We have decided to evacuate all our staff and as of the last few minutes the last of our UK-based staff have now left Iran.”
In retaliation, Iran warned on Wednesday that it will take measures against Britain after its decision to close the Islamic republic’s embassy in London, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
“The British government’s asking Iranian diplomats in London to leave this country is a passive and hasty action,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in statements emailed to AFP.
“Obviously the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will take reciprocal action in this regard and holds the British government responsible for protecting the diplomatic properties and belongings in London,” he added.
“What happened at the British embassy in Tehran was unpredictable. It occured due to the anger of some demonstrators over Britain’s policies regarding the Islamic republic,” Mehmanparast said.
He noted that none of the British diplomats were hurt and said the judiciary was “dealing” with the “violators.”
Iran “is committed to international obligations, and considers unacceptable any aggression towards diplomats and diplomatic properties,” Mehmanparast added.
Hague had also expressed skepticism at what he called the “belated” response by the Iranian authorities to stop the protesters attacking the compounds.
“Iran is a country where opposition leaders are under house arrest, where more than 500 people have been executed so far this year, and where genuine protest is ruthlessly stamped on,” he said.
“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.”
However, he said diplomatic ties would continue with Iran, albeit at a much reduced level.
“This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety. It is action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations,” he said.
“Very tough action”
Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier on Wednesday that Britain is considering taking “very tough action” against the Islamic Republic.
Cameron said his main concern was ensuring the safety of British embassy staff.
“After that we will consider taking some very tough action in response to this completely appalling and disgraceful behavior by the Iranians,” he told parliament.
The attack on the British embassy by hard-line students and Basij militia, reflected widening divisions within Iran’s ruling elite over how to deal with the increased international pressure as sanctions take their toll on the already stagnant economy.
The protest, which evoked memories of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, appeared to be a move by the conservatives who dominate parliament in their feud with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and designed to force him to heed their demand to expel the British ambassador.
In their dispute with the West, Ahmadinejad and his ministers have shown no willingness to compromise on their refusal to halt Iran’s nuclear program but have sought to keep talks open to limit what sanctions are imposed. The West believes the program is aimed at building a nuclear weapon, which Tehran denies.
“It was planned and organized by the students but it was not something that came from the government,” said Mohammad Marandi, an associate professor at Tehran University.
“The students were telling me days before that they were planning to be there in large numbers. They said some students would try (to storm the embassy),” he said. “I don’t think the government is happy with what happened.”
Conservative newspapers trumpeted the embassy seizure.
The daily Vatan-e Emrouz declared “Fox’s den seized” – referring to Britain’s nickname “the old fox” which reflects a widely held view in Iran that the former imperial power still wields great power behind the scenes in Iranian and international affairs.
While Iranian police at first did not stop the protesters storming the embassy gates, they later fired tear-gas to disperse them and freed six Britons held by demonstrators.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed its regret for the “unacceptable behavior of few demonstrators”.
The protesters hit back at the Foreign Ministry and police.
“The Foreign Ministry stance on the university students’ move has surprised us because our expectation from the Foreign Ministry is not to sacrifice the basis and the goals of the nation for diplomatic and political relations,” said a statement by a group calling itself the Islamic community of seven Tehran universities.
“While the protesting students were seeking to answer to the plots and malevolence of this old fox in support of the decision of the revolutionary parliament to expel the ambassador of the British government we witnessed the harsh blow of the police on these students,” said the statement on a state TV website.
“We expected the police to be on the side of the students instead of confronting them.”
Britain last week banned all its financial institutions from any dealings with Iran, including its central bank, after a report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency suggested Iran may have worked on developing a nuclear arsenal.
Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, denies the charge and says it only wants to generate electricity.
The United States and Canada also tightened their sanctions on Iran last week but France is pressing for more.
“France is advocating sanctions on a scale that would paralyze the regime: freezing of central bank assets and an embargo on hydrocarbon exports,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in an interview in a weekly news magazine.
Seemingly alluding to efforts to agree such a move at the level of the 27-country European Union, Juppe said: “We want to reach a common position so that the pressure will be utmost. We cannot keep letting the Iranians take us for a ride.”
Germany, France and Sweden summoned the Iranian envoys to their countries on Wednesday to protest against the incursion of the British embassy, while Italy said it was doing likewise and was thinking about closing its Tehran embassy altogether.