Iran has arrested eight local British embassy staff, triggering London’s fury and further exacerbating tensions with the West over the post-election turmoil in the Islamic republic.
The latest backlash against what Iranian leaders have said is foreign “meddling” came as opposition leaders continued to defy the regime, rejecting a panel set up to hold a partial recount in the hotly-disupted presidential vote.
Iran has repeatedly accused Britain and the United States of stoking the unrest that swept the country after the June 12 election that returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power amid complaints it was rigged.
The Fars news agency said the eight staff members were arrested for having a “considerable role” in the riots.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said London had protested strongly to Tehran over the arrests, which he described as “harassment and intimidation of a kind which is quite unacceptable.”
He said the release of the staff was Britain’s “top priority” and dismissed claims the embassy was behind the demonstrations as “wholly without foundation”
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added fuel to the fire, accusing European and American officials of making “idiotic comments” about Iran, state television reported.
Last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned Iran may downgrade ties with Britain after the two governments expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat move.
Iran has also expelled the BBC correspondent in Tehran, arrested a British-Greek journalist, and accused a number of other British passport-holders of involvement in riots.
Against the diplomatic tensions, Iranian opposition leaders continue to challenge the regime, rejecting a panel set up by election supervisory body the Guardians Council to hold a partial recount.
Both Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s strongest rival, and another defeated candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, are demanding a new vote because of what they say are widespread irregularities.
The Guardians Council, an unelected body of 12 jurists and clerics, said it would create a committee of political figures and candidate representatives to recount 10 percent of the ballots and draw up a report on the vote.
But Karroubi, a reformist former parliament speaker who came a distant fourth, said in a letter to the council that a partial recount was “not enough” and called for an independent panel to probe “all aspects of the election.”
Mousavi rejected the panel outright on Saturday, while the other defeated candidate, Mohsen Rezai, has agreed to be part of the committee if Mousavi and Karroubi also agree to nominate representatives to the body.
But Mousavi, who has spearheaded the massive public opposition to the vote, has demanded a rerun, refusing to be cowed by a persistent crackdown against his supporters.
“Limiting the probe into complaints about electoral irregularities to recounting 10 percent of the ballot boxes cannot attract people’s trust and convince public opinion about the results,” he said on his campaign website.
Mousavi, who was prime minister in the post-revolution years, won 34 percent of the vote against 63 percent for Ahmadinejad, a gap of 11 million votes, according to official results.
The Guardians Council has said no “major irregularities” have so far been found and the election was the “cleanest we have had.”
The streets of Tehran appeared quiet on Sunday, with the authorities warning they would suppress any further protests over the vote that triggered the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
At least 17 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, according to state media. However, foreign media are banned from the streets under new restrictions imposed in the wake of the election.
The authorities have also rounded up scores of reformist leaders, journalists and political activists, many of them Mousavi supporters, while a party office has been raided and his newspaper closed down.
Despite the election turmoil, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana expressed hope that talks would resume on Iran’s nuclear drive, which the West fears is a cover for efforts to build atomic weapons.
US President Barack Obama said on Friday that Iran’s “outrageous” crackdown on demonstrators would hit hopes for direct talks with the Islamic republic after three decades of severed ties.
But he said talks between Iran and world powers were likely to continue over its nuclear programme, which OPEC’s second largest oil exporter insists is for peaceful energy generating purposes.