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Iranian diplomats expelled from UK return home to hero's welcome

Iranian diplomats expelled from Britain after radical youths stormed the British Embassy in Tehran arrived home on Saturday to supporters bearing flowers and chanting "Death to England."
/ Source: news services

Iranian diplomats expelled from Britain after radical youths stormed the British Embassy in Tehran arrived home on Saturday to supporters bearing flowers and chanting "Death to England."

"Spy embassy closed for good," read one of the many placards carried by the crowd of some 100 men and women, most of whom appeared to be members of the hard-line Basij militia, congregated at Imam Khomeini Airport.

Britain evacuated all diplomatic staff and closed its embassy in Tehran after it was stormed and ransacked on Tuesday. France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran in protest.

With swift condemnation from around the world, the embassy storming risks further isolating Iran which is already under several rounds of sanctions over the nuclear program that many countries fear is aimed at developing atomic bombs, a charge Tehran denies.

About 150 hard-liners waiting with flower necklaces gathered at Tehran's Mehrabad airport early Saturday to give the roughly two dozen diplomats and their families a hero's welcome.

But the Iranian government, apparently opposed to any high-profile display that could worsen the fallout, took the diplomats off unseen from a backdoor, reflecting Iran's own internal political rifts.

The obstruction of Saturday's welcome ceremony reflected the disagreements between hard-liners and the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which opposed downgrading relations with Britain and condemned the attack on Britain's Embassy.

Speaking to reporters at the airport, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast warned Britain's European Union partners not to allow the diplomatic row to worsen their own ties with the Islamic Republic.

"The British government is trying to extend to other European countries the problem between the two of us, but of course we have told European countries not to subject their ties with us with the kind of problems that existed between Iran and Britain," he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

Deepening isolation President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has yet to comment on the incident, an indication, some analysts say, that it was organized by rival hard-liners within the faction-riven establishment.

Iran's Foreign Ministry has expressed regret over the embassy invasion, which it said was a spontaneous overflowing of anger during a student protest. Britain says there must have been at least tacit approval by the ruling establishment.

Mohammad Mohammadian, a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the attackers, saying they had targeted the "epicenter of sedition."

It amounted to the most serious diplomatic fallout with the West since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy after the Islamic Revolution, and some Iranian political figures have voiced doubts over whether anything can be gained from escalating the diplomatic battle.

Iran's relations with Britain have become increasingly strained in recent months, largely due to tensions over Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a key component of its nuclear program. The process is of deep concern internationally because it can be used to produce material for nuclear warheads in addition to reactor fuel. Iran insists its program is entirely peaceful.

Along with the United States and other nations in Europe, Britain has backed sanctions that have so far failed to push Iran to halt its enrichment program.

Iran's hard-line constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, approved a parliamentary bill into law requiring the Iranian government to downgrade relations with Britain. The government opposed it but said it would carry out the law.

New details
Britain's ambassador to Iran, Dominick Chilcott — now back in Britain — offered new details about the attacks, saying the experience had been "frightening."

"We had no idea how it was going to end," he said, describing how the mob trashed rooms, damaged furniture, scrawled graffiti and tore up a portrait of Queen Victoria, as staff took shelter in a secure area of the embassy.

"It felt like very spiteful, mindless vandalism, but it wasn't quite mindless," Chilcott said. "They removed anything that was electronic — mobile telephones, personal computers — anything that might give information about who you were talking to or what you were doing."

At one point, the intruders started a fire inside the chancery building, forcing the staff to leave the safe area, climb down a fire escape and exit the building. A small number of police escorted them to a building on the edge of the compound and told them to lie low.

"We turned all the lights out and we sat in the dark and we could hear the noise of the intruders going on around us," he said.

He said seven staff at a separate residential compound that was also attacked were seized and "quite roughly handled" by the invaders.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has led the accusations that the rioters had a green light from Iranian authorities, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. On Thursday, he said the attacks were "clearly premeditated" by high-ranking officials.