Protesters In Iran Storm British Embassy

In Iran on Tuesday, students and other protesters stormed the British Embassy in the capital Tehran, smashing windows, throwing firebombs and burning the British flag. The crowd had gathered at the embassy to protest new severe economic sanctions imposed by Britain, cutting off all banking with Iran. Renee Montagne talks with Washington Post reporter Thomas Erdbrink, who is in Tehran.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Iran today, students and other protesters have stormed the British Embassy in the capital, Tehran, smashing windows, throwing Molotov cocktails and burning the British flag. The protesters had gathered at the embassy to protest new severe economic sanctions imposed by Britain, cutting off all banking to Iran.

Washington Post reporter Thomas Erdbrink was there, and we reached him in Tehran. Good morning.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, describe for us how this compound invasion happened.

ERDBRINK: Well, the scene was basically a normal one, normal demonstrations, as they usually take place in front of the British Embassy. About two to three hundred youths - men and women. The women were wearing black chadors, the men with beards. They gathered in front of the embassy and they offer some speeches by clerics, as they starting hurling stones and then before you know it, they actually entered the embassy complex. That's where things get really different from the usual protest, because until now I've never seen them doing such a thing. They, as you said, they took down the flag, they set some things on fire. They took some documents from the entrance building and they threw them around while the crowd in front of the embassy was loudly cheering.

And it took the police, oh, well over an hour to actually send them off the roof that they've occupied. And by that time, black smoke could be seen rising from that embassy compound here in the center of Tehran. Clearly, a sign of how bad the relations between Iran and the West has become.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what set this off? Might expect students, in fact, to target an American embassy, but in this case, what did the British do exactly regarding sanctions that upset these students so much?

ERDBRINK: What actually sparked the demonstrations was Britain trying to (unintelligible) a new round of sanction against Iran, which was very badly received here by Iran's leaders who not only called for the British ambassador to be expelled, but also for - and were highlighting the bad relations between Iran and England. Now I don't we must see these people as students, per se. These are basically hard-line demonstrators that are clearly aligned with one faction here in Iran, and I think the fact that the police didn't intervene clearly show that this was partly orchestrated.

MONTAGNE: Orchestrated by the government?

ERDBRINK: Orchestration, maybe not possibly by the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's currently entangled in a very complicated power game with Iran's clerical leaders, but possibly more orchestrated by hard-line clerical leaders and members of the Revolutionary Guard, who basically (unintelligible) all kinds of relations with other states and who for a long time have been hoping this that there will be no more British representation here in Tehran. Now, it seems that after today the Brits might actually decide to leave Tehran and they might even inspire the European Union, which is debating about sanctions against Iran in two days, to possibly also pull back their ambassadors.

MONTAGNE: Thomas Erdbrink is The Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran. Thanks very much for talking with us.

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