- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

CAIRO | A powerful cleric said Friday that Iran will put British Embassy staffers on trial for fomenting postelection turmoil, a step that would likely increase Iran’s isolation and alienate Western nations that have been trying to keep options open with Tehran despite its crackdown on protesters.

The announcement prompted calls in Europe for tougher action against Tehran. Britain is pressing for members of the European Union to pull their ambassadors out of Tehran to protest the staffers’ arrests last week.

After quashing the street demonstrations, Iran’s leadership has been trying to erase any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election by portraying the unrest as sparked by foreign meddling, not by public anger over the June 12 election, which the protesters said was fraudulent. Prosecuting the detained Iranian members of the British Embassy staff could help boost its case before the Iranian public.

On Friday, a day after issuing a public call for the staffers’ release, governments across the 27-nation European Union summoned Iran’s ambassadors to present their demand in person.

Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden, which holds the rotating presidency of the bloc, said the EU’s “escalatory approach to Iran was working.”

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his country backs Britain’s push for tougher action “so that Iranian leaders will really understand that the path that they have chosen will be a dead end.”

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said his country is “deeply concerned” about the personnel, who he said “have not engaged in any improper or illegal behavior.” He said he would speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki about the issue.

Word of the trials came from Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an ultraconservative who is one of the most prominent figures in Iran’s clerical leadership and is close to the country’s supreme leader.

Ayatollah Jannati took a tough line in a sermon to thousands of worshippers attending Friday prayers at Tehran University, accusing Britain of being behind the protests.

London “designed a velvet revolution” to topple Iran’s Islamic government and the detained staffers confessed to their role, he told the crowd, where some chanted slogans against the U.S. and Israel.

“In these events, their embassy had a presence,” he said. “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.

Ayatollah Jannati does not hold a position in the government, but is the head of the Guardian Council, a powerful body in the clerical hierarchy that stands above the elected government.

The council oversees elections, and carried out a partial recount which was ordered after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pro-reform rival Mir Hossein Mousavi cried fraud and said he was the victor. The recount ultimately upheld Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election victory.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the results would stand, and ruling clerics promptly called the elections “pure” and “healthy.”

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