TEHRAN // Iran's strained relations with Britain took a sharp turn for the worse yesterday when Iranian television reported that Tehran has arrested four men allegedly paid by a British-based Kurdish militant to carry out assassinations.
There was a swift and strenuous denial from Britain where a government spokesman dismissed the story as the latest in a long line of "baseless" claims by Iran.
About 100 demonstrators pelted the British Embassy in central Tehran with eggs and tomatoes as they chanted slogans demanding the British ambassador's expulsion and the embassy's closure.
Even before the latest allegations emerged, radical students on Wednesday had said they were mulling a takeover of the "espionage den of the Old Fox" Britain - to mirror the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran 31 years ago yesterday.
But the small demonstration outside the British Embassy and the much larger commemorative protest outside the long-defunct US diplomatic mission passed without serious incident.
Iran's state-run Press TV said the four "British-linked terrorists" were detained in the western city of Marivan and are accused of carrying out five assassinations in the past two years for money.
Citing an Intelligence Ministry report, the channel said the detainees were part of an Iranian Kurdish faction known as the Koumaleh Party. They allegedly confessed to receiving orders from a British-based commander whom Press TV named as Jalil Fattahi.
Press TV reported that although promised US$20,000 (Dh73,400) per killing, the arrested men had received less than half that sum.
Sources within Koumaleh, a communist party based in northern Iraq, said the group had not taken part in any armed operations against Tehran since the early 1990s, but acknowledged that former members had splintered off into criminal gangs, the Times of London reported.
Press TV suggested the arrests might be retaliation for comments made by John Sawyer, the head of MI6, the British secret intelligence service, who in his first speech in public last Friday praised secret intelligence operations in Iran as a key to curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: "The UK does not support or encourage terrorist activity in Iran, or anywhere else in the world and this claim will be seen as what it is: another in a long line of slurs against the United Kingdom from the government of Iran."
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, last summer accused the "evil British government" of stirring up the anti-government street demonstrations that convulsed Tehran in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president.
In Iranian political demonology, Britain is regarded as a "Little Satan" that is more Machiavellian than the dim-witted "Great Satan" America.
Yesterday's reported arrests of Kurdish militants came as Iranians commemorated the November 4, 1979 anniversary of the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran by radical students, months after the Islamic revolution. That event, in which 52 embassy staff were held for 444 days, scarred the American psyche and has tainted US perceptions of Iran for three decades.
In Iran, the US Embassy takeover has come to symbolise the Islamic republic's resistance to "western aggression". However, some of the former students who stormed the embassy have mellowed with time and become officially maligned reformists who advocate better relations with Washington.
Tehran, meanwhile, yesterday welcomed Washington's decision on Wednesday to label the shadowy Sunni rebel group Jundallah as a "terrorist" organisation, saying it was a move in the "right direction".
An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, however, repeated accusations that the US supports the group, which has killed dozens of Iranian civilians and military personnel with the declared aim of defending the Baluch minority in Iran's remote south-eastern corner.
Analysts saw Washington's decision as a goodwill gesture to Tehran ahead of a possible new round of negotiations this month between Iran and world powers on the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.
In turn, it might have been significant that protesters outside the former US embassy in Tehran yesterday apparently did not, as they have done for 30 years, burn the Stars and Stripes.
The US flag, however, was torched outside the British embassy along with the Union Jack and the Israeli flag.