Britain 'must not take sides' over Iran poll

Britain must not take sides in the Iranian election dispute, Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned today as he said there were "credible reports" of more than seven deaths in deadly clashes.

Appealing for restraint by the authorities in Tehran, he played down the reforming credentials of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and said the West should not "fall into the trap" of backing one side.

Mr Miliband spoke out shortly before it was reported that the country's Guardian Council had declared itself ready to recount votes after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which has sparked mass protests.

"The most fervent hope is for peaceful protest to be met with peaceful response from the state authorities," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"The loss of life that's happened - the seven that have been reported, the credible reports of greater loss of life - are to be deplored very clearly."

But he said it was vital that the UK, the US and other nations were not seen to interfere, echoing American President Barack Obama's message that, whatever the election result, "the world is watching".

"I thought that President Obama chose his words very carefully and very appropriately last night and I spoke to Mrs (Hillary) Clinton, the Secretary of State, and we are all determined not to fall into the trap of being seen to back one side or the other," Mr Miliband said.

"This is not a pro-West versus an anti-West competition in Iran, it is a competition to reflect the will of the Iranian people and I think that we have to hold fast to that point."

Offering help to the protesters would be counter-productive, he said.

"The long thesis of the conspiracy of foreign powers against Iran is one that is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination and peddled vociferously by the regime.

"What is very, very important is that we continue to show respect for the Iranian people - that's what President Obama did yesterday - that we continue to insist that it is for them to choose their government."

There was "real discontent" among a wide cross-section of Iranian society and not just in the capital, he said, but it should not be forgotten that Mr Mousavi was "one of the regime's founding figures".

"It would be quite wrong to present this as a clash between on the one hand the hardliner and on the other hand the raging reformer.

"Mr Mousavi is a pragmatic reformer but he is part of the revolutionary generation.

"Our position must be, to be absolutely clear, that internally it is a matter for the Iranians to choose their own government but externally the world needs an Iranian government that is willing to live up to its responsibilities.

"That, of course, is not just something for the president; it is a critical role for the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) who sets the tone and substance of Iranian international policy."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown today urged Iran to listen to its people's grievances in the wake of the country's election dispute.

Speaking about the situation during a tour of communications firm Arqiva in south east London ahead of today's Digital Britain report launch, Mr Brown said: "The elections are a matter for the Iranian people, but if there are serious questions that are now being asked about the conduct of the elections, they have got to be answered.

"There must be no violence in response to peaceful protests.

"I think Iran has got to listen very carefully, because the relationship they will have and the respect they will have from the rest of the world will depend on how they respond to what are legitimate grievances that are being expressed and have to be answered."

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