Iranian cleric says British Embassy employees will be tried

Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, says Iran's enemies 'made an effort to poison the people' during post-election unrest. European Union nations consider pulling ambassadors from Tehran.

July 04, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — A senior Iranian cleric said Friday that the British Embassy employees arrested in Tehran in recent days would be put on trial on unspecified charges of acting against Iran's national security, a move immediately 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, would "definitely be tried." They are accused of taking part in or promoting weeks of unrest after the June 12 presidential election, which was marred by allegations of massive 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 unrest 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 Office. Jannati did not say how many would be put on trial or on what specific charges.

Sweden, which took on the rotating leadership of the EU days ago, criticized the move. "It's not acceptable to file charges against the ones released or the ones still in custody," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said London 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."

In a coordinated response, EU nations began summoning Iranian ambassadors to complain about the arrests. 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 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 festering political divisions over Ahmadinejad's reelection as the work of foreign enemies. Iranian officials have cited Britain in particular, a former colonial power that has a long history of entanglement in their nation's affairs, including backing a 1953 coup against a democratically elected government.

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, a former president who usually delivers the sermon once a month, last stood at the pulpit on May 22. Rafsanjani is opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi's most powerful backer.

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 two camps in coming days.

Jannati's Guardian Council recently reaffirmed Ahmadinejad's reelection after a partial recount of ballots in a vote many critics said was flawed. The council ignored Mousavi's charge that ballot boxes were taken to military bases after they left polling stations, contending that most 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 of the votes for Ahmadinejad appear to have been written in the same handwriting and same pen, according to the official photographs.

"Utmost attention was paid to deal with [election] complaints," Jannati insisted in his address 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 as a result of the crackdown, 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 Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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