x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

UK in furore over Iranian analyst's prison term

The British foreign secretary calls the sentence 'wholly unjustified' and urges authorities to overturn the judgment on appeal.

LONDON // Britain has reacted furiously to a four-year prison term imposed on one of its Tehran embassy staff for allegedly spying and fomenting the bloody civil unrest that followed June's presidential elections.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, said yesterday that the sentence imposed on Hossein Rassam, an Iranian national working as chief political analyst at the embassy, was "wholly unjustified" and an attack on the entire diplomatic community in Iran. Simon Gass, the British ambassador in Tehran, has protested Rassam's sentence to Iran's deputy foreign minister while Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador in London, was called in to the foreign office on Tuesday to emphasise Britain's outrage.

Rassam, 43, was sentenced in a closed session of court last week. The Iranians only officially confirmed the sentence to him on Tuesday and even the British government was not formally informed and based its protests on unspecified "reports" from Iran. In addition to the four-year jail term, Rassam was banned from working for any foreign embassy for five years. He is currently free pending an appeal.

Mr Miliband described the sentence as "deeply concerning", adding: "Such a decision is wholly unjustified and represents further harassment of embassy staff for going about their normal and legitimate duties. "We understand the sentence can be appealed. I urge the authorities to conduct this quickly and overturn this harsh sentence. "We are in close touch with EU and other international partners, who continue to show solidarity in the face of this unacceptable Iranian action.

"This will be seen as an attack against the entire diplomatic community in Iran and important principles are at stake." A diplomatic source in London added: "The conviction piles yet more tension on Anglo-Iranian relations. David Miliband's demand that the sentence be overturned will be the real test of how far Tehran is ready to push this. "The root of the problem, of course, is that Britain, along with the US, has been one of the strongest critics of Iran over its nuclear policy. That makes Britain a prime target, particularly as the US does not have diplomatic representation in Tehran."

In the wake of the post-election protests, which led to dozens of deaths, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, blamed Britain for creating the unrest in a bid to bring down the Tehran regime. Rassam has always denied any involvement in spying or encouraging the widespread street protests that followed the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election. Sources said that, at his trial, all he did was confirm the work he has done at the embassy since taking up his post there in June 2004.

The semi-official Fars News Agency in Tehran quoted Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, Rassam's lawyer, as saying yesterday: "The court has issued a verdict but I, as a lawyer of Rassam, have not received the verdict yet. Therefore I can't give any comment." A friend of Rassam's in Iran said: "The sentence is outrageous because he has confessed to nothing more than his job description. "Hossein is a very personable, humorous man and he is putting a brave face on things in very difficult circumstances. He jokes about what is happening to him but to be honest, it is very scary for him, his wife and their teenage son.

"Everyone who knows him closely knows that he is very patriotic, yet he is being described by the hard-line media here as 'Britain's master spy' and accused of having had a big role in inciting post-election riots in Tehran. "That's nonsense, of course, but proving that in an Iranian court is no easy matter." Rassam has a master's degree in linguistics from Tehran University and is a self-taught political analyst. He began working for the BBC and the Financial Times in Tehran a decade ago and, from 2002-2004, was an analyst at the Japanese embassy.

In most parts of the world, embassies employ their own nationals as political analysts. However, the situation in Iran is considered so complex and difficult to penetrate by outsiders that embassies have taken to recruiting local staff. Rassam became much respected by foreign journalists in Tehran, who regarded him as a walking encyclopaedia of Iranian politics. After his arrest on June 27, along with seven other Iranian members of the British embassy staff, he was not only accused of spying for the UK but of feeding "strategic advice" to foreign journalists. The BBC's correspondent was subsequently expelled from Iran.

Although the other embassy employees were released within days, Rassam was held for more than three weeks at Evin prison in Tehran. He was accused of spying and being the mastermind behind British attempts to stir up unrest after the June 12 elections. He was said to have made personal contact with the campaign headquarters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate who claimed that Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election was fraudulent.

Rassam is expected to launch his legal appeal within the next few days and the prison sentence will not be imposed until an appeals court ruling on the case. "There is no timing for that and there have been cases where it took years for that to happen," said a source who witnessed the trial - During his televised trial, he actually gave a description of all he had done as the embassy's chief political analyst, such as providing analysis to his superiors and meetings with Iranian analysts, politicians, economists, intellectuals, journalists and so on.

"Never did he say that he had sought, acquired or passed on any kind of confidential information or documents to anyone who was not supposed to have them, which is the definition of espionage in the relevant Iranian laws." The source added that the prosecution failed to offer any evidence that Rassam had played a role in inciting the post-election riots. During the trial in August, Rassam's 13-year-old son was abroad attending a language course.

"His father's trial was repeatedly shown on the television as the 'trial of a British spy'. The family kept the boy away to protect him from further trauma and stigmatisation as a result of all the negative publicity back home," the source said. dsapsted@thenational.ae