x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Britain hits back after mob attacks embassy in Iran

Britain orders the immediate closure of the Iranian Embassy in London in retaliation for mobs storming the UK's two sprawling diplomatic compounds in Tehran on Tuesday.

An Iranian protester runs inside the British embassy in Tehran as a diplomatic vehicle is ablaze during Tuesday's storming of British compounds in the country.
An Iranian protester runs inside the British embassy in Tehran as a diplomatic vehicle is ablaze during Tuesday's storming of British compounds in the country.

LONDON // Britain yesterday ordered the immediate closure of the Iranian Embassy in London in retaliation for mobs storming the UK's two sprawling diplomatic compounds in Tehran on Tuesday.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, announced the move shortly after all British diplomats in Tehran were flown to Dubai for safety.

He told Parliament that Britain's embassy in Tehran would be closed indefinitely.

"If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here," Mr Hague said.

Even so, as already tense relations with Iran plummeted, Mr Hague said Britain was not severing relations with Tehran entirely.

Tuesday's attacks, the worst on a foreign mission in Iran since the US Embassy was seized in the turbulent wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, provoked widespread international condemnation, deepened Iran's isolation and highlighted a growing rift within Tehran's ruling hardliners.

Mr Hague said it was "fanciful" to believe the attacks did not take place without the support of Iran's regime.

Earlier, David Cameron, the prime minister, said: "The Iranian government must recognise that there will be serious consequences for failing to protect our staff. We will consider what these measures should be in coming days."

Iran will come under more pressure today when European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels will discuss additional economic sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programme. France has been pressing for an EU ban on Iranian oil imports. EU members will weigh the desire to punish Iran with the need to keep channels open to defuse the nuclear row.

In solidarity with Britain, the ministers are also likely to discuss retaliatory measures against Iran for Tuesday's attacks and Tehran's decision a day earlier to expel the British ambassador, Dominick Chilcott.

Norway yesterday temporarily closed its embassy in Tehran for security reasons, but said it would not evacuate staff. And Italy said last night it was considering closing its embassy.

Iranian riot police had stood idly by while crowds, led by plain-clothed members of the volunteer Basij militia chanting "Death to England", broke into the high-walled British compounds.

They ransacked offices, burnt Union flags, torched at least one embassy vehicle and ripped up portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. No embassy staff was hurt, although six had to take refuge in a secure room for several hours.

Riot police firing tear gas flushed out the triumphant protesters later on Tuesday, only after widespread damage to property had been inflicted. Mr Hague said Iran should be "ashamed", adding that Britain is seeking compensation for the damage. Iranian state television crews were on hand to record the chaotic scenes.

Britain infuriated Tehran last week by sanctioning Iran's central bank after a report by the UN's nuclear watchdog strongly suggested that the Islamic republic had conducted research into nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear programme is designed solely to generate electricity.

The storming of the British compounds appeared to reflect a prolonged and bitter power struggle between Iran's ruling hardliners that pits President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government against his opponents in the parliament and judiciary who are loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's foreign ministry issued a rare expression of regret on Tuesday night that contrasted sharply with a defiant statement yesterday by the powerful parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani. Maintaining the protests were spontaneous, he argued that Britain was to blame for the high emotions that underpinned the violent scenes.

"This anger is an outcome of decades of domineering moves by the British in Iran," he told a session of parliament.

Some Iranian newspapers also heralded the seizure of what they called the "fox's den", alluding to Britain's nickname in Iran as the "colonial old fox".

The Iranian government, however, blamed the incident on the "unacceptable behaviour by a small number of protesters" and said several had been arrested and charged.

Mr Ahmadinejad appears keen to maintain working relations with EU countries to stave off further sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme. But his hardline opponents seem to relish a crisis, hoping it will embarrass him and unite Iranians behind the regime.

Hostility to Britain, which has been at the forefront in pressing for more punitive sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme, has resonance among Iranians, which the regime often taps when things are going badly at home.

Mistrust is rooted in British imperial meddling in Iran during the 19th and 20th centuries. The defining moment was in 1953 when Britain joined with the US in a coup that overthrew Iran's elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the unpopular Shah. Mossadegh's sin in British eyes was to have nationalised the British-owned Anglo-Iranian oil company.

The last time the British Embassy was ransacked was in November 1978, just months before Iran's Islamic revolution, when a crowd accused Britain of supporting the Shah. In 1986, Revolutionary Guards members beat up the British charge d'affaires and in 2007 Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines in disputed waters along the Iraqi border.

Protesters on Tuesday who demanded the closure of the British Embassy branded it a "den of spies", echoing the accusation made against the US Embassy in 1979 when it was stormed by militant students who held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

mtheodoulou@thenatioknal.ae

dsapsted@thenational.ae