Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami has sharply criticised the storming of the British embassy in Tehran by hundreds of pro-regime protesters, calling the attack “illegal,” media reports said Sunday.
“I explicitly say that I am against attacking embassies and occupying them,” he was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
“Attacking an embassy and occupying it is like invading a country and is illegal,” said the cleric, who is very close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khatami stated, however, that “we must not compare” the storming of the British embassy with the 1979 taking of the US embassy in Tehran, which resulted in US-Iranian diplomatic ties being broken off entirely.
His comments were the strongest reaction yet to the coordinated incursions of Britain’s embassy and a second diplomatic compound in Tehran on Tuesday by hundreds of pro-regime protesters.
Iranian officials have asserted that the protesters acted spontaneously in anger at Britain slapping new sanctions on Iran’s financial sector over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Another senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, on Saturday said it was possible that “elements” had infiltrated the protesters to prompt the backlash against Iran.
Shirazi also said his country “could pay a high price” for the embassy assault.
But Britain’s ambassador to Tehran, Dominick Chilcott, speaking after he and all other British diplomats were evacuated from Iran for their safety, said the embassy attack could not have happened without “the acquiescence and support of the (Iranian) state.”
He pointed to police inaction as the embassy and the compound were stormed, and speculated that Iran may be feeling “remorse” over the assault, after Britain ordered Iran’s embassy in London closed.
Iran’s regime, however, has been mixing defiance with defensiveness.
Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, notably, has defended the embassy protesters, saying their action was understandable given anger over “the domineering policy” of Britain.
Even Khatami, as he was leading Friday prayers, struck a harsh tone that contrasted with his subsequent comments on the embassy assault.
He instructed worshippers to add “Death to Britain” to their cycle of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” chants, and warned other Western countries not to join Britain in retaliating — “or else our nation’s hatred toward Britain will also befall them.”
French diplomats on Saturday said they were reducing their staff numbers in the French embassy in Tehran because of security concerns in the wake of the British embassy assault.
The French, German, Italian and Dutch ambassadors have also been recalled to their respective capitals for consultations on the issue.