BY JENNY BOOTH and SOPHIE TEDMANSON
Britain today condemned the arrest of nine employees of the British embassy in Tehran and demanded their immediate release.
An Iranian news agency reported this morning that the Iranian workers had been detained for involvement in the post-election unrest in the Islamic Republic.
The arrests follow a week of escalating rhetoric against Britain, which was accused by the Iranian foreign minister of flying in jet-loads of spies to disrupt Iran’s presidential elections on July 12.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, denied that the mission had been involved in any post-election unrest and called for the release of the embassy staff.
“This is harassment and intimidation of a kind that is quite unacceptable,” Mr Miliband told reporters during a security conference on the Greek island of Corfu.
“We want to see (them) released unharmed.”
News of the arrests emerged from Fars, a semi-official news agency, which said: “Eight local employees at the British embassy who had a considerable role in recent unrest were taken into custody.” It did not say when the arrests occurred.
Mr Miliband said that the total number of employees in question had been about nine, but some had been released.
“We are still concerned about a number of them who to our knowledge have not been released … The numbers are changing hour by hour,” he said.
“These are hard-working diplomatic staff and the idea that the British Embassy is somehow behind the demonstrations and protests that have been taking place in Tehran in recent weeks is wholly without foundation.”
Mr Miliband said Britain had made a strong protest to the Iranian authorities and he would discuss the issue with European Union counterparts in Corfu who were due to discuss the post-election situation in Iran later today.
Gordon Brown announced on June 23 that Britain was expelling two Iranian diplomats after the Islamic Republic forced two British diplomats to leave.
Analysts say that the Iranian authorities have chosen to make allegations accusing foreign government of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs as a way of minimising the level of domestic unrest about the presidential election on June 12.
On June 19 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, called Britain the “most treacherous” of Iran’s enemies which he accused of orchestrating an unprecedented outpouring of protest which followed the news that President Ahmadinejad had been re-elected with a record majority.
Today Ayatollah Khamenei went back on the attack, denouncing what he called “interfering statements” by Western officials, state media reported.
“If the (Iranian) nation and officials are unanimous and united, then the temptations of international ill-wishers and interfering and cruel politicians would no longer have an impact,” state radio quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as saying.
Yesterday, foreign ministers from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries deplored the violent crackdown on protesters.
Iran has expelled the BBC’s Tehran correspondent, Jon Leyne and arrested a British-Greek journalist, Iason Athanasiadis, as well as a number of other British passport-holders it says were involved in rioting.
Mr Athanasiadis, also known as Jason Fowden, was arrested at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran on charges of “underground activities”. He had been about to fly out of the country after covering the election and its violent aftermath for The Washington Times.
His parents have called for his release and insited he is not a spy.
The news of the embassy arrests came as the EU’s foreign policy chief said the bloc was eager to restart talks with Iran on the country’s nuclear programme, despite its crackdown on protesters following presidential elections.
Speaking in Corfu, Javier Solana said the EU doesn’t want to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, but will continue its criticism of the conduct of the security forces and the arrests of demonstrators.
The Guardians Council, Iran’s supreme legislative body, was today due to issue its final ruling on the elections, after three defeated candidates lodged allegations of vote-rigging.