Hardline sermons in Iran stiffen EU resolve over embassy staff

The West agonises over how to rebuke Iran without undermining talks on its nuclear aspirations, but mullahs are defiant

Call it pulpit diplomacy. While Western politicians agonise over how to rebuke Iran without undermining talks on its nuclear aspirations, hardline mullahs use their Friday sermons to bullhorn their defiance to the world.

Three Fridays ago Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, demanded that the massive street protests end. Almost immediately his security forces flooded the streets and began brutally suppressing the demonstrations.

Last week Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, another hardline cleric, told the thousands gathered at Tehran University that the “rioters” should be mercilessly punished and their leaders executed. Yesterday it was the turn of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, 83, who has used his chairmanship of the Guardian Council, the country’s highest legislative body, to thwart challenges to Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

Which of the local embassy workers will be charged with what is unclear, but on Wednesday Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency said that one of them “had a remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes”. Another had been a “main element behind the riots” but had been freed because she had diplomatic immunity.
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The claim that they had “confessed” was ominous. State television has shown several detained demonstrators apparently recanting and blaming subversive Western powers for inciting them.

Ayatollah Janatti’s sermon may have played well with his domestic audience but it also apparently stiffened resolve in European capitals whose governments were shocked by the arrests. Like Britain’s, their embassies cannot function without Iranian advisers, translators, guards and other staff.

Last Sunday the EU pledged a “strong and collective” response to the arrests. On Thursday there was a wobble, with the more cautious governments led by Germany and Italy — Iran’s biggest trading partners — rebuffing British proposals that all 19 member states with embassies in Tehran temporarily withdraw their ambassadors in protest.

After yesterday’s sermon, however, a source close to the EU’s Swedish presidency insisted that “all options remain open”. EU governments summoned the various Iranian ambassadors and told them there could be no “business as usual” while British staff were held. EU countries also stopped issuing visas to Iranian officials.

Iran will also be high on the agenda of an Anglo-French summit on Tuesday, and British officials are also pressing for a tough statement from next week’s G8 summit in Italy, which could draw China, the US and other countries into the general condemnation of Tehran’s behaviour.

But even with this diplomatic firepower at its disposal, Western nations must somehow find a way of punishing the regime for its electoral cheating and brutal crackdown without scuppering negotiations to halt its nuclear programme.

But while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is apparently keen to stop the confrontation worsening, the Intelligence and Interior ministries and other branches of the regime are not.

They want the turmoil of the past month blamed on foreign powers. The British Embassy is an easy target — partly because Iranians have been brought up believing that the “Little Satan” is perfidious, and partly because Iran’s two other favourite enemies, the United States and Israel, do not have missions in Tehran.



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