Tehran: Eight Iranian employees of the British embassy in Tehran have been detained for active involvement in post-election unrest in the Islamic Republic, an Iranian news agency reported on Sunday.
The move is likely to strain relations further between London and Tehran following Iran’s disputed 12 June presidential election and a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.
Iran has accused Western powers - Britain and the United States in particular - of interfering in its internal affairs after the vote, which sparked days of huge demonstrations in which at least 20 people were killed.
Britain and the United States have rejected the accusations.
“Eight local employees at the British embassy who had a considerable role in recent unrest were taken into custody,” the semi-official Fars News Agency said, without giving a source. “This group played an active role in provoking recent unrest.”
Iran’s English-language state Press TV carried a similar report, citing Iranian sources.
In London, a foreign ministry spokesman said, “We have in the last few days received a number of sometimes confused reports that British nationals or others with British connections have been detained. We continue to raise them with the Iranian authorities.”
A senior diplomat from another Western country said the reported detentions were a “worrying development”.
Official results showing hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election by a landslide were met with disbelief by many Iranians who agreed with complaints by the runner-up, Mirhossein Mousavi, that the vote was rigged.
The authorities accuse Mousavi of responsibility for the bloodshed that occurred when riot police and religious basij militia crushed the protests. Mousavi blames the government.
Iranian officials have over the last week stepped up accusations of foreign interference.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tehran was considering downgrading ties with Britain, and Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mosheni-Ejei said some people with British passports were involved in this month’s unrest.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced on 23 June that Britain was expelling two Iranian diplomats after Iran forced two British diplomats to leave.
Britain has a long history of involvement in Iran and many Iranians remain suspicious of its motives.
The two countries have frequently clashed over Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying it only wants nuclear power for generating electricity.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 19 June attacked foreign powers for alleged interference, singling out Britain as the “most treacherous” of Iran’s enemies.
Brown has condemned violence and media censorship in Iran.
Britain suspended its diplomatic ties with Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, only reopening an embassy in 1988, following the Iran-Iraq war. Ties were downgraded again in the early 1990s, with full normalisation only taking place in 1998.
In 2007, 15 British sailors and marines were seized by Iran in the Gulf and released after a tense 13-day standoff.