Iran will try British Embassy employees

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A senior Iranian cleric said Friday that employees of the British Embassy in Tehran arrested in recent days would be put on trial for unspecified charges of acting against Iran’s national security, a move denounced by members of the European Union.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the conservative Guardian Council, said in a Friday prayer sermon that the employees, all of them Iranian nationals, “will definitely be tried.” They are accused of taking part in or promoting unrest after the June 12 presidential election, which was marred by opposition allegations of vote-rigging.

“The enemy made an effort to poison the people,” Jannati, who is politically close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told worshipers gathered in Tehran. “They had planned a velvet revolution before the election. … A number of people at the British Embassy were arrested for involvement in the unrests, and they will definitely be tried.”

Eight or nine employees of the embassy’s political section were arrested last weekend. All but two have been released, according to the British Foreign Ministry. Jannati did not say how many would be put on trial or on what specific charges.

Sweden, which recently took on the rotating leadership of the EU, immediately criticized Jannati’s threat.

“It’s not acceptable to file charges against the ones released or to the ones still in custody,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said his nation was “urgently seeking clarification” of Jannati’s remarks.

“We are confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behavior,” he said. “We remain deeply concerned about the two members of our staff who remain in detention in Iran.”

EU nations began summoning Iranian ambassadors to complain about the arrests in a coordinated response. They are also weighing the possibility of pulling all 27 member nations’ ambassadors from Tehran as well as imposing a travel ban on Iranian officials to protest the arrests, but they want to wait for Iran’s next move regarding the embassy employees, European news media reported.

The comments by Jannati, a hard-line octogenarian cleric, are in line with an official effort to paint days of protests and political divisions over Ahmadinejad’s re-election as the work of Iran’s enemies. Iranian officials in particular have cited Britain, which has a long history of entanglement in their nation’s affairs that includes backing a 1953 coup against a democratically elected government.

But Jannati’s very presence at the pulpit surprised Iran watchers. Moderate cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani was officially scheduled to address worshipers. Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mousavi’s most powerful backer, last stood at the pulpit May 22, although he usually delivers the important sermon once a month.

The absence of moderate clerics at the Friday pulpit strongly suggests a continuing rift at the highest levels of the Iranian establishment over the election and more confrontation between the rival camps in coming days.

Jannati’s Guardian Council recently reaffirmed Ahmadinejad’s re-election after a partial recount of ballots in a vote many critics said was flawed. The council ignored opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s charge that ballot boxes were taken to military bases after they left polling stations, contending most election violations were minor.

Official photographs of the recount showed thousands of unfolded ballots, even though voters were required to fold their ballots before dropping them into boxes. At least some votes for Ahmadinejad appear to have been written in the same handwriting, according to official photographs.

“Utmost attention was paid to deal with (election) complaints,” Jannati said to worshipers. “There were no problems with the elections.”

He blamed protesters for damage to private property during street clashes, even as amateur video has surfaced showing security forces smashing car windows and damaging motorcycles.

“You set fire to buses and public property. In whose interest are you doing so?” Jannati said, speaking of the protesters.

Even as hundreds of Mousavi’s supporters and other dissidents languish in custody, Jannati called for unity.

“No matter what political line you follow, the world is constantly watching this country,” he said. “We have a global mission. Now should we fight against each other? We should abide by the law and make up for the past.”

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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