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Iran wants Brits on trial

The announcement about embassy staffers fueled calls in Europe for tougher action against Tehran.

An Iranian female worshipper holds a poster of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a Friday prayer ceremony, at the Tehran University campus, in Tehran, Iran.

AP PHOTO

EDITOR’S NOTE: Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices. This report is based on the accounts of witnesses reached in Iran and official statements carried on Iranian media.

A powerful cleric said Friday that Iran will put British Embassy staffers on trial for fomenting postelection turmoil, a step that would likely increase Iran’s isolation and alienate Western nations that have been trying to keep options open with Tehran despite its crackdown on protesters.

The announcement fueled calls in Europe for tougher action against Tehran. Britain is pressing for members of the European Union to pull their ambassadors out of Tehran to protest the staffers’ arrests last week.

The standoff is a test of how far Iran’s clerical rulers are willing to go to shore up their position at home after the wave of protests — even if they risk wrecking possibilities for dialogue between Tehran and the West, a major policy goal of President Barack Obama that Tehran cautiously welcomed.

After quashing the street demonstrations, Iran’s leadership has been trying to erase any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by portraying the unrest as sparked by foreign meddling, not by public anger over the June 12 election, which the protesters said was fraudulent. Prosecuting the detained Iranian members of the British Embassy staff could help boost its case before the Iranian public.

At the same time, the arrests test the U.S. and Europe’s policy, which has so far been to avoid an overly harsh reaction to Iran’s postelection crisis. The West has been wary of condemnations of Iran’s leadership, in part for fear of undermining prospects for future talks with Tehran, particularly over its controversial nuclear program.

So far, the EU has taken an incremental approach. On Friday, a day after issuing a public call for the staffers’ release, governments across the 27-nation bloc summoned Iran’s ambassadors to present the demand in person.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the EU’s “escalatory approach to Iran was working.”

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