Monday, June 29, 2009

Europe vows ‘strong and collective' response to arrests of nine staffers in Iran

From The Globe and Mail, Monday, 29 June 2009:
Iran's battle with Britain escalates
The diplomatic battle raging between Iran and Britain has escalated after the European Union's promise to launch a “strong and collective” response to Iranian arrests of British embassy staff members over the weekend.

Nine locals employed by the British embassy in Tehran were arrested, with Iran alleging they played some role in encouraging the postelection unrest that has bloodied the streets of Iran's capital city for more than two weeks.

The arrests, which are part of a broader campaign by the country's hard-line leadership to blame the unrest on foreign meddling, were called “harassment and intimidation” by David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary. They come on the heels of a tit-for-tat set of diplomatic expulsions last week: Iran expelled two British diplomats – the embassy's second and third secretaries – and Britain responded in kind, ejecting two Iranians and pulling families of British embassy staff out of Iran.

“We have protested in strong terms, directly to the Iranian authorities, about the arrests,” said Mr. Miliband, who deemed the detentions “quite unacceptable.”

“The idea that the British embassy is somehow behind the demonstrations and protests that have been taking place in Tehran … is wholly without foundation,” he said.

Both Britain and the U.S. have been the subject of accusations by Tehran of interference related to the June 12 presidential vote, which official results showed was won by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His main challenger, moderate former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, says the vote was rigged and that the election should be annulled.

The debate unleashed the biggest street protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: At least 25 have died and more than 2,000 have been arrested. Several journalists and prominent news organizations have been muzzled or expelled.

Mr. Mousavi's unwillingness to give up his campaign – and the resulting outpouring of supporters who have endured brutal violence and death while resisting police attempts to crush street-level uprisings – has plunged the country into instability and divided its political and clerical elite.

The Guardian Council, Iran's top legislative body, is due to give its final verdict on the election and could rule as early as Monday. On Sunday, Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehi pre-empted the council by announcing “no organized” vote-rigging took place. He went on to accuse some British embassy staff of mingling with protest crowds to encourage unrest.

The British embassy, which sits in a compound behind three-metre-high walls in central Tehran, has at least 70 local employees, including a highly regarded political adviser whose job is to keep colleagues abreast of the Islamic republic's internal politics. Unlike British nationals, none of the local staffers are protected by diplomatic immunity. Harassment by Iranian security forces is common, but arrests are not.

The employees who were arrested have not been named. While some were released over the weekend, others remain in detention.

At a meeting in Corfu, Greece, the European Union nations, which maintain a rotating presence in Iran, condemned the arrests and demanded that all detainees be freed.

“Harassment and intimidation would meet a strong and collective EU response,” the union's foreign ministers said.

While the diplomatic wrangling continued, in Tehran, thousands of protesters took to the street for the first time in four days to demonstrate more support for Mr. Moussavi.

Witnesses said riot police used tear gas and clubs to break up a crowd of up to 3,000 protesters who had gathered near north Tehran's Ghoba Mosque. Some described scenes of brutality, telling The Associated Press that some protesters suffered broken bones and alleging that police beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who then fought back.

The reports could not be independently verified because of tight restrictions imposed on journalists in Iran.

The leadership seems to recognize that ending the street demonstrations is far easier than turning the clock back to the days before the election, when there was still some degree of trust in a system that sought to marry religious authority with popularly elected institutions, political analysts said.

“I think no one can predict Iran's political future,” said an Iranian intellectual who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “I do believe some things have changed after this recent upheaval and that events will play out in months and years to come.”

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ruled out any compromise with the opposition, said Sunday that the only solution to the crisis was to follow legal procedures. And he urged political leaders not to be what he called tools of foreign influence, returning to a theme of foreign intervention that historically has resonated across Iran but that so far has failed to silence the opposition.

“If the nation and political elite are united in heart and mind, the incitement of international traitors and oppressive politicians will be ineffective,” he said.

With reports from Globe and Mail wire services
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