Iranian cleric: British Embassy staff to be tried

Mideast Iran Election
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, delivers a sermon during Friday prayers at the Tehran University campus in Iran.Vahid Salemi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A top Iranian cleric said Friday that some of the detained Iranian staffers of the British Embassy in Tehran will be put on trial, and he accused Britain of a role in instigating widespread protests that erupted over the country's disputed presidential election.

The announcement by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati alarmed European nations and fueled calls for tougher action against Tehran. Britain is pressing for members of the European Union to pull their ambassadors out of Tehran to protest the arrest of its embassy staffers last week — a step that the EU so far has hesitated to take.

After Jannati's comments, French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday expressed backing for Britain, saying "our solidarity with our English friends is total." He said France backs sanctions "so that Iranian leaders will really understand that the path that they have chosen will be a dead end."

The United States and Europe have been wary of reacting too harshly in Iran's post-election crisis, even as the government cracked down heavily on protests that erupted following the declaration of a landslide victory for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential election. The West has been hoping to keep open prospects for future dialogue with Tehran — particularly over its controversial nuclear program.

Cleric says staffers 'made confessions'
Jannati, a powerful hard-liner who is close to Iran's supreme leader, told worshippers during a Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University that the detained staffers "made confessions."

"In these events, their embassy had a presence," he said, referring to the post-election turmoil. "Some people were arrested. Well, inevitably, they will be put on trial."

He did not say how many staffers will be tried or on what charges. Earlier Iranian officials said all but one of the nine embassy personnel originally arrested had been released, but British officials say two are being held.

In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain is "deeply concerned" about the staff members.

Britain is "confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behavior," Miliband said in a statement, adding that the ministry was seeking urgent clarification from Iranian authorities and that he would speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki about the issue.

In Sweden, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said "it's not acceptable to file charges against the ones released or the ones still in custody," though he added that the report had not yet been confirmed.

EU summons Iranian ambassadors
On Thursday, EU countries demanded the release of the staffers, but held off on any sanctions for the time being. They took an further step Friday, summoning Iranian ambassadors across the 27-nation bloc in a joint protest over the arrests.

Jannati does not hold a position in the government or judiciary, but is the head of the Guardian Council, a powerful body in Iran's ruling clerical hierarchy that stands above the elected government.

The council oversees elections, and it carried out a partial recount which was ordered after Ahmadinejad's pro-reform rival Mir Hossein Mousavi cried fraud and said he was the victor. The recount ultimately upheld Ahmadinejad's election victory. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the results would stand, and ruling clerics promptly called the elections "pure" and "healthy."

Iranian authorities have since depicted the widespread protests that erupted after the election as the work of outside enemies of Iran.

Jannati told the thousands of worshippers that the British "had designed a velvet revolution ... In March, they said (in their Foreign Ministry) that street riots were possible during June elections. These are signs ... revealed by themselves."

Protests quashed by crackdown
Giant protests erupted in Tehran and other cities over the results, but they were quashed in a tough crackdown after Khamenei declared unrest would no longer be tolerated. Iran's police chief has said 20 "rioters" were killed during the violence. During his sermon, Jannati said seven or eight members of the paramilitary Basij militia were also killed. Basijis took a leading role in putting down the protests, often clashing with demonstrators.

There have been no street protests since Sunday, but Mousavi appears driven to maintain his opposition and even to raise the stakes. In a defiant statement on Wednesday, he said he considered the government illegitimate and demanded political prisoners be released. Still, he has been laying low, making no public appearances for days amid calls by many hard-liners for him to be prosecuted.

Jannati took a tough line, indirectly accusing Mousavi of treason.

Though he did not name Mousavi directly, Jannati pointed out that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, once said that "anyone disrupts unity has not only committed a sin but also has committed treason against the Islamic Republic and the system."

Jannati demanded that those involved in the protests "repent and ask God to forgive them."

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