In scenes that evoked the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, hundreds of demonstrators stormed two British diplomatic compounds in Tehran on Tuesday, hurling gasoline bombs, ransacking offices and tearing down the British flag.
The hours-long attacks, which followed a move by the Iranian parliament to expel Britain’s ambassador over new sanctions, marked a sharp escalation in the tension between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Britain promised “serious consequences” and summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London to the Foreign Office. The incident also drew rebukes from the United States, France and the U.N. Security Council.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret for “the unacceptable behaviors” by some demonstrators and said it had requested an immediate investigation.
The protest was organized to mark the anniversary of the death of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari in an attack Iran blamed on British and Israeli intelligence agencies. A few hundred demonstrators gathered outside the British Embassy in downtown Tehran, chanting “Death to England!” and demanding the immediate withdrawal of Ambassador Dominick Chilcott.
Some of the protesters climbed over the gates into the complex, where they tossed gasoline bombs and hoisted the Iranian flag in place of the Union Jack. They ripped down satellite dishes, tossed out papers and carried away a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
Other protesters forced their way into a British diplomatic compound in the north of the city, where they seized documents and staged a sit-in, according to a report by the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Iranian riot police appeared slow to respond, but regained control of both compounds within hours.
Fars said police had secured the release of six embassy employees taken hostage by protesters and arrested 12 people.
But the official Islamic Republic News Agency said the demonstrators had been protecting the employees. The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it appeared all embassy staff and their dependents were accounted for but said officials were “urgently establishing the whereabouts of our locally engaged security staff.”
“I spoke to the Iranian foreign minister this afternoon, to protest in the strongest terms about these events and to demand immediate steps to ensure the safety of our staff and of both embassy compounds,” Hague said. “While he said that he was sorry for what had happened and that action would be taken in response, this remains a very serious failure by the Iranian government.”
He warned British nationals against all but essential travel to Iran and advised the small number in the country to stay indoors.
The demonstrators were angry about British support for stepped-up Western sanctions after the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report saying Iran may be secretly working to develop a nuclear weapon.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced last week that Britain was severing financial ties with Iranian banks, which British officials accuse of facilitating Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is only for civilian purposes.
Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets legislation from parliament, approved a bill Monday calling for a downgrading of diplomatic relations with Britain and the expulsion of its ambassador.
Britain called the move “regrettable” and promised to “respond robustly” if Iran follows through on the threat.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Staff writer Henry Chu and news assistant Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.