Erdbrink Discusses Attacks On British Embassy

Guy Raz speaks with Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink for an update on Britain and Iran. They discuss protests at the British Embassy, rising tensions and moves to close other European embassies in Iran.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

Britain withdrew all of its diplomatic staff from Iran today and gave Iran's embassy staff in London 48 hours to leave the country. The move comes just a day after protesters broke into Britain's embassy compound in Tehran, ransacking offices and terrorizing staff.

For more, we're joined now by Washington Post reporter Thomas Erdbrink, who is in Tehran. And, Thomas, first, a bit of context. This attack appears to be in retaliation for a move Britain took last week, severing financial ties with Iran. Can you tell us more about those moves?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: What happened is that Britain, together with the United States and Canada, decided to again increase sanctions against Iran. And Britain actually went further than those two countries and decided to also sanction Iran's central bank.

Now, Iran's Central Bank is of course at the core of Iran's ability to trade in oil. And I think that's one of the reasons why the Iranians decided to react very strongly. Certainly, Iran's parliament approved a law which called for downgrading of ties with England. Then, in that law, it was also mentioned that the ambassador had to be expelled.

And this escalated into a protest of young, pro-regime students, they call themselves, though they're actually members of Iran's hard-line Basij militia who ransacked two of British Embassy's compounds here in Tehran, destroying a lot of the furniture, artwork and also driving the diplomats out of the embassy.

RAZ: And is it fair, Thomas, to say that this attack had the support of Iran's government, or was this a spontaneous attack?

ERDBRINK: Absolutely not. This was a well-orchestrated demonstration. But it wasn't supported by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. What happened is that the opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Shiite Muslim clerics, commanders belonging to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, had given the go-ahead to these protesters to actually enter the embassy grounds. And this has, in a way, embarrassed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. The foreign ministry, which is led by allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave out a statement condemning the storming of these two British compounds and calling for an investigation into the incidents.

RAZ: Thomas, diplomatically, this comes at a time when Europe is debating what it can do to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. So what happens now?

ERDBRINK: Well, tomorrow, the E.U. has scheduled a very important meeting on Iran. And the European Union is still one of Iran's main business partners, and they have actually scheduled to talk about sanctions against Iran. But in light of the recent events, several European ambassadors have been pulled back today; the German ambassador, the Netherlands ambassador, and also the Italian ambassador. And this is a sign of what's to come.

Diplomatic sources are telling me that the E.U. is now either considering a full-out oil embargo against Iran, but also possibly the permanent closure of the E.U. embassies in Tehran. So this, if it actually happened, will be another step towards Iran's isolation with the E.U. having been Iran's only diplomatic lifeline to the West.

RAZ: Thomas Erdbrink, thank you.

ERDBRINK: Thank you.

RAZ: Thomas Erdbrink is a reporter with The Washington Post. He joined us from Tehran.

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