U.K. Reduces Tehran Embassy Staff After Compound Is Stormed by Militants

The U.K. said it’s pulling some diplomats out of Tehran after its embassy was stormed by militants a week after Britain tightened sanctions on Iran in response to its nuclear program.

“Ensuring the safety of our staff and their families is our immediate priority,” the Foreign Office in London said in a statement read over the telephone by a spokesman today. “In light of yesterday’s events and to ensure their ongoing safety, some staff are leaving Tehran.” No further details on the number or timing of the departures will be given until “the appropriate time,” the Foreign Office said.

State media said the attackers were from the Basij, a militia linked to Iran’s Republican Guard Corps. They entered the main embassy building downtown and a compound in northern Tehran, tearing down the British flag, Queen Elizabeth II’s picture, breaking windows and rifling through documents. Their acts were “unacceptable” and they “got out of control,” though police had taken measures and the guard around the mission had been strengthened, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The assault on the British mission brought international condemnation, including from the U.S., which is leading an international effort to tighten an economic noose on the country. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this month reiterated his country’s refusal to scale back its nuclear program, saying he won’t withdraw “an iota” from the work.

‘Convenient Target’

Given that the U.S. hasn’t had diplomatic ties with Iran for more than three decades, Iran went for “the next convenient target,” Former British Ambassador Anthony Harris, who was the U.K. envoy to the United Arab Emirates in the 1990s, said today by telephone from London.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called the events “outrageous and indefensible” and said “the Iranian government must recognize that there will be serious consequences for failing to protect our staff,” according to a statement. His foreign secretary, William Hague, said he spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi “to protest in the strongest terms.”

The Guardian Council, Iran’s highest legislative body, on Nov. 28 endorsed parliament’s move to downgrade diplomatic ties with Britain, including the expulsion of its ambassador, after the U.K. joined the U.S. in expanding its sanctions. European Union foreign ministers are due to meet tomorrow to discuss additional measures against Iran.

Targeting Oil

The most recent measures target Iran’s oil -- its major source of income, with $80 billion in annual revenue from its daily output of about 3.5 million barrels, according to Iranian official figures and International Energy Agency estimates. That makes it the second-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, after Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday’s unrest took place on the first anniversary of the killing in Tehran of Majid Shahriari, a nuclear scientist, for which Iran has blamed foreign intelligence services, including the U.K.’s. State media said the numbers involved at the embassy were in the hundreds.

Some of the attackers were detained and will be brought before judiciary authorities, the state-run Mehr news said, citing Tehran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia.

Norway said today it temporarily closed its embassy in the Iranian capital for security reasons. No decision has been made on whether to evacuate the staff, Hilde Steinfeld, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Oslo, said by e-mail.

Nuclear Weapons

The U.S. and allies including the U.K. have said Iran is seeking to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a nuclear program. Iranian officials say the work is purely civilian and is needed for the development of nuclear power.

“In the past Iran’s reaction to sanctions has been utterly dismissive; attacking the U.K. Embassy paints a picture of a regime that is deeply distressed and flustered,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in an e-mailed response to a question. Sadjadpour said the attackers were “government- controlled rent-a-mobs.”

Parliament’s speaker Ali Larijani said today their “anger” stems from decades of “hostile behavior” from the U.K., according to the state-run Mehr news agency.

Iran harbors a longstanding distrust of the U.K. and the U.S. for staging a coup that overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, and for backing the rule of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who was ousted in Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Oil Price

Crude rose 1.6 percent in New York yesterday, settling at $99.79 a barrel, on increased U.S. consumer confidence and the assault on the embassy. Crude futures were at $99.95 a barrel at 12:13 p.m. London time today.

Oil fell from the highest price in two weeks on signs of rising U.S. stockpiles. Crude for January delivery slid as much as 75 cents to $99.04 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile. The contract yesterday advanced 1.6 percent to $99.79, the highest close since Nov. 16. Oil has gained 6.8 percent this month amid concern the sanctions may cut supplies from Iran.

U.S. President Barack Obama called on Iran to ‘hold those who are responsible to task” and said “the Iranian government is not taking its international obligations seriously.”

After the revolution that ousted pro-western the Shah and brought Shiite Muslim clerics to power, students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days, leading the U.S. to sever ties. The revolt in Iran sent the price of Saudi Arabia’s Arab light crude to about $34 a barrel at the end of 1980 from $14 two years earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Tehran at lnasseri@bloomberg.net; Thomas Penny in London at tpenny@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net; James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net.

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