Hague expels Iranian diplomats following attack on UK embassy

British staff pulled out of Tehran as EU considers stronger sanctions against Ahmadinejad

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Relations between Iran and the UK reached their lowest point in decades yesterday when William Hague announced that Iranian diplomats would be expelled at once in response to the attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

The Iranian foreign ministry denounced the action as "hasty" and warned it could lead to further retaliation but other Western nations echoed British condemnation of the embassy protest, which Britain believes would not have been possible without at least implicit approval from the authorities.

The European Union is due to announce today tough new sanctions aimed at further isolating the Tehran regime. Germany, France and the Netherlands have all recalled their ambassadors for consultation, while Norway has closed its embassy as a precaution.

The ratcheting up of international diplomatic and commercial pressure, and ongoing threats of air strikes from Israel in the background, had raised tensions over Iran's supposed attempts to acquire a nuclear arsenal to a new level.

In an escalating crisis, about 25 British embassy staff still in Tehran were evacuated following the storming of diplomatic compounds by protesters on Tuesday. The Iranian embassy in London was closed yesterday, with diplomats given 48 hours to leave the country. But the moves do not mean that diplomatic relations have been severed; channels will be kept open through third countries.

Senior figures in Tehran accused the UK of exploiting the disturbances and repeated accusations that the US and UK were involved in "criminal activity" against Iran. The regime pointed out that police had removed the demonstrators and the foreign ministry had apologised for what happened, which, they said, was due to the "unacceptable behaviour of a handful of students".

But the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the House of Commons yesterday that the Basij militia, the youth wing of the Revolutionary Guards with close ties to hardline elements of the Iranian leadership, had led the charge into the embassy and residential complexes. Mr Hague stressed that it was "fanciful" to think that the attacks could have taken place "without some degree of regime consent". He continued: "If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here." What happened, with official acquiescence, was "shameful", he said, and Britain would be seeking compensation for the damage caused by looting and arson during the break-in.

The decision to expel the Iranian diplomats had been made on Tuesday evening after discussions on the issue between the Prime Minister and Mr Hague. But, because of fears of possible retaliation, the Foreign Secretary delayed the announcement until it was confirmed that UK embassy staff had left Iranian airspace. Diplomatic and security sources said it had become imperative for all personnel to leave, instead of leaving a skeleton team as originally envisaged, because of the likelihood that another incident could lead to hostage taking.

"Let's not kid ourselves, six or seven people were actually being held against their will for a while," said one Whitehall source. "Then they were freed by the police. But the power structure in Iran is quite complex, next time they may be in the hands of people over whom the police have no power. In any event, the buildings have been pretty trashed, burned, people couldn't have gone on living and working there."

EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels today to discuss measures to be taken against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, and a range of added sanctions, affecting the financial sector, travel by Iranian officials and petrochemical industries, will be discussed. Russia and China have also criticised the attack.

Questioned by MPs in the Commons, Mr Hague refused to rule out the military option, while stressing that the British position remained that the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme should be settled by negotiations. "All options remain on the table," he insisted.

Robert Emerson, a security analyst specialising in the Middle-East, said that the next move in Jerusalem could prove crucial. "It is the Israeli intention that really matters and the jury's out on that," he said. "There are those like [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu who want to whack Iran, others, including senior people in the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) who are saying 'whoa, wait, let's see what effect these new sanctions have'. But the clock's ticking away."