x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Miliband calls for talks with Iran

UK foreign secretary wants other EU nations to take diplomatic action against Tehran, which says trial for staff members is 'inevitable'.

LONDON // David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, was yesterday seeking urgent talks with his Iranian counterpart over the detention of British Embassy staff in Tehran. Mr Miliband, who is also pressing other European Union states to take far-reaching diplomatic action against Iran, is seeking verification from the Tehran regime of reports that at least one, locally recruited embassy staff member will be put on trial for alleged involvement in anti-government protests. The Associated Press reported yesterday that the embassy's chief political analyst, Hossein Rassam, a 44-year-old Iranian, has been charged at Tehran's Evin Prison with "acting against national security", according to his lawyer, Abolsamad Khorramshahi. Mr Khorramshahi has not yet been allowed to meet his client or see the official report of the incident. He said Mr Rassam would probably stand trial soon. At one stage, up to nine Iranian staff members at the embassy were detained after protests that followed the Iranian presidential election result, which returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with 63 per cent of the vote. By yesterday, the foreign office said that all but two had been released. In a sermon in Tehran after prayers on Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's Guardian Council, announced that some embassy staff would face trial and claimed that confessions had been obtained. "In these events, their embassy had a presence. Some people were arrested. Well, inevitably, they will be put on trial." Britain, even more than the United States, has been blamed by the Tehran regime for interfering in Iranian affairs after the election, fomenting the discontent that led to mass protests in several cities. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has described Britain, as the "most evil" of its enemies and Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported last week that one of the embassy detainees had played a "remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes". Britain's attempt to get all EU states to withdraw their ambassadors from Iran in protest was thwarted when Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, urged a more cautious, wait-and-see approach. EU foreign ministers are not due to meet to discuss the issue until July 27 but, if confirmation is received that any staff have been charged, Mr Bildt is expected to bring the meeting forward. Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has come out firmly in Britain's support, urging immediate sanctions against Iran "so that Iranian leaders will really understand that the path that they have chosen will be a dead end". Mr Miliband said yesterday: "We have noted the remarks by Ayatollah Jannati suggesting that some of our local staff in Iran may face trial. We are urgently seeking clarification from the appropriate Iranian authorities. "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." William Hague, the Conservative Party's shadow foreign secretary, added: "The harassment of the staff of any embassy is a violation of diplomatic norms and conventions. This is a matter of principle and we should be able to expect solidarity and a united response from other European countries if Iran continues down this unwise path." The West's approach to Iran will dominate the upcoming G8 summit of industrialised countries in Italy. Some EU countries are urging caution, arguing that Europe should engage with Iran, not isolate it. However, diplomatic sources in London said yesterday that, if embassy staff are put on trial, the EU will have no option but to take dramatic diplomatic action. There are historical reasons why Iranians are distrustful of the British, who have a lengthy record of meddling in their affairs, dating back to the 19th century. In 1941, when British and Russian forces occupied Iran and forced its ruler, Reza Shah, to abdicate. Then, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the UK supported the increasingly corrupt and repressive regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Against the background of this historic distrust, the British angered the Tehran rulers at the start of the year with the launch of the BBC Persian service, which the government has branded a propaganda arm of the UK government and a reason why so many protesters took to the streets after the June 12 election results were declared. dsapsted@thenational.ae