David Miliband has condemned the jail sentence handed down to a British embassy staff member in Tehran as "wholly unjustified" and urged Iran to repeal it.
The UK foreign Secretary was speaking after Hossein Rassam, an Iranian national working as the chief political analyst at the embassy, was sentenced to four years in jail and banned from working for any foreign embassies for at least five years after being found guilty of espionage. He was charged following the unprecedented post-election unrest that followed the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June.
The sentence could create fresh tensions with the European Union and beyond. Mr Miliband called on Iran’s judiciary to “overturn this harsh sentence” in the appeal process, while he stressed that Britain was “in close touch with the EU and other international partners, who continue to show solidarity in the face of this unacceptable Iranian action.” Mr Miliband added it was “seen as an attack against the entire diplomatic community ... and important principles are at stake”.
A western diplomat in Tehran said: “The EU will react strongly against the sentence by Friday afternoon.”
The British comments came as western powers waited on Thursday for Tehran to respond to a crucial international offer regarding its nuclear programme. World powers hope that Tehran will accept a deal to transfer about two-thirds of its current stock of low-enriched uranium to France and Russia and thereby avoid fresh demands for economic sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is expected to deliver his response to Mohamed El-Baradei, the IAEA head, in Vienna on Thursday.
Mr Rassam, who is still free on $200,000 bail, was officially notified of the sentence last Tuesday and has 20 days to appeal. Iran arrested nine local workers at the British embassy following the disputed presidential election on June 12 accusing them of involvement in stirring up the unrest – which saw hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate in the streets – against the regime.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quick to blame “vicious Britain” for the unrest, which was followed by the expulsion of two British diplomats and the arrest of local staff. Mr Rassam spent three weeks in solitary confinement and appeared at what the authorities described as an “open” trial but which critics condemned as a “show” trial.
Mr Rassam was not represented by a lawyer at the trial where he “confessed” to playing a role in an attempt by the British embassy to fuel political tensions in Iran.
The French embassy was also accused of interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. A local employee at the French embassy and a French student were put on trial along with Mr Rassam on similar charges. No verdicts have been made public in their cases.
Mr Miliband said the British ambassador to Tehran had spoken to Iran’s foreign ministry, while his Iranian counterpart in London was summoned to the foreign office. Western diplomats do not expect the jail sentence against Mr Rassam to be repealed but speculate that Iran could suspend it for a few years without putting him in prison.