Britain expels Iranian over Rushdie plot

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BRITAIN yesterday ordered the expulsion of two Iranian embassy officials and a third Iranian 'for reasons of national security'. Diplomatic sources said one of the men was involved in a plot to assassinate Salman Rushdie and the other two had been interfering in Britain's internal affairs on behalf of Iranian intelligence.

Mehdi Sayed Sadeghi and Mahmoud Mehdi Soltani, both employees of Iran's embassy in London, and Gassem Vakhshiteh, a student, have been given a week to leave the country.

One is understood to have been identified by MI5 and Special Branch as being involved in a plot to carry out the death sentence ordered by Iran against Mr Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses. The man came close enough to the author, who has emerged recently from hiding to carry out public speaking engagements, to be seen by protection officers.

Intelligence sources and diplomats said the expulsions had nothing to do with the Iranian decision last week to expel a British diplomat in Tehran, Geoffrey Brammer. But as British diplomats have told the Independent that a tit-for- tat expulsion will take place once Mr Brammer has left Iran, a further expulsion of an Iranian embassy official in London is expected. That will further exacerbate what is already the worst state of Anglo-Iranian relations since diplomatic ties were resumed nearly two years ago.

When the Iranian charge d'affaires was summoned to the Foreign Office yesterday to be told of the expulsions, he was asked to 'reaffirm Iran's undertaking not to interfere in Britain's internal affairs'.

None of the Iranians being expelled has diplomatic status. However, Mr Soltani - accused of working for a 'foreign intelligence service' - is the most high-profile official at the embassy in London. Although his main official function has been to liaise with the press in London, he had been mixing actively with Iranian dissidents to gather intelligence about them for the Iranian intelligence service, diplomatic and Iranian exile sources said.

Although a local employee previously employed by the Red Crescent Society in London, Mr Soltani enjoyed very senior status in the embassy. He had a chauffeur-driven embassy car, claimed to be a relative of Mohammed Javad Larijani, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, and would lunch openly with Iranian exiles in London while seeking to persuade them to return to Iran.

As part of a charm offensive, he facilitated travel to Iran for British journalists and was also behind a round of in-house lectures by British notables designed to emphasise Iran's civilised image. Exile sources said Mr Soltani started his networking after he was introduced to dissident intellectuals by Mousavi Jarma Rudi, a writer with close personal links to President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mr Soltani yesterday insisted the expulsions were part of a tit- for-tat exercise. He told the Independent: 'This is a random choosing of people without thinking at least twice about it. I thought British society was a little bit civilised. Clearly it is not so at all, since they could not make a decision rationally.

'The other man was working in the consular section and was helpful with British people travelling to Iran as tourists. By removing me and him, there will be a setback in the services we provide.'