Tehran: Iran prepared a high-profile welcome for its diplomats expelled on Friday from London in retaliation for attacks on British compounds in Tehran that Western leaders claim were sanctioned by Tehran's ruling elite.
The official reception planned for the roughly two dozen diplomats and their families - including a rare invitation to foreign media to cover the airport event - apparently was designed to send a message that Iran will not seek quick measures to heal the most serious diplomatic fallout with the West since the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy after the Islamic Revolution.
Germany, France and the Netherlands have recalled their ambassadors, and Italy and Spain summoned Iranian envoys to condemn Tuesday's storming of the British Embassy and residential complex.
Britain withdrew its diplomatic staff and their families, shuttered its ransacked embassy and ordered the Iranian diplomats expelled by Friday afternoon.
The larger blow may be to Iran's relations with the West and others. The diplomatic freeze from Europe, including key trading partner Germany, further isolates Iran just weeks after a report by the UN nuclear watchdog agency that alleged Iran was making strides toward mastering critical elements for atomic weapons.
Iran claims its nuclear program only seeks reactors for power and research. But the current breakdown in relations with the West could embolden hard-liners who want a tougher stance against the International Atomic Energy Agency, which they accuse of being manipulated by the US and allies.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran will certainly "retaliate" for the British expulsions.
The British Foreign Office said "all diplomatic staff of the Iranian Embassy in London took off from Heathrow airport" on Friday afternoon. They were to be welcomed back by a group of Iranians early Saturday at the Tehran airport, Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency reported.
The offer for foreign media to cover their arrival stands in sharp counterpoint to an order Thursday banning non-Iranian outlets from reporting on rallies in front of the now-vacant British diplomatic sites in the capital without specific permission.
Britain's ambassador to Iran, Dominick Chilcott - now back in Britain - offered new details about the attacks, saying the experience had been "frightening."
"We had no idea how it was going to end," he said, describing how the mob trashed rooms, damaged furniture, scrawled graffiti and tore up a portrait of Queen Victoria, as staff took shelter in a secure area of the embassy.
"It felt like very spiteful, mindless vandalism, but it wasn't quite mindless," Chilcott said. "They removed anything that was electronic - mobile telephones, personal computers - anything that might give information about who you were talking to or what you were doing."
He said seven staff at a separate residential compound that was also attacked were seized and "quite roughly handled" by the invaders.
Hard-liners in Iran have said the attack was an outpouring of the wrath of the Iranian people who believe Britain is a hostile country seeking to damage and weaken the Islamic Republic. Mohammad Mohammadian, a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the attackers, saying they had targeted the "epicenter of sedition."
Iranian government officials, meanwhile, said the storming of the embassy by angry protesters was unexpected and Iranian police intervened to protect the British diplomats and get the attackers out of the buildings.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has led the accusations that the rioters had a green light from Iranian authorities, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. On Thursday, he said the attacks were "clearly premeditated" by high-ranking officials.
The demonstrations had been organized by hard-line groups on university campuses and Islamic seminaries and included denunciations of the latest sanctions on Iran over its nuclear efforts. Such major anti-Western rallies are rarely allowed to occur without official approval and often include state-backed forces including a paramilitary group known as the Basij, which is part of the vast security network controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.
Images broadcast around the world showed demonstrators tearing down Union Jack flags, brandishing a looted picture of Queen Elizabeth II and tossing out looted documents.
The deepening tensions with Britain and others may also trigger further rifts within Iran.
For months, Iran's ruling system has ordered arrests and intimidation against political allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has sharply fallen from favor after challenging decisions by the head of the theocracy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad has remained silent since the attacks, but his supporters have raised questions about whether Iran's interests are served by a diplomatic battle with the West.