Britain has retaliated for the storming of its embassy in Tehran, expelling Iranian personnel and ordering the Islamic Republic's embassy in London closed in the worst diplomatic row between the two nations in years.
Protesters stormed and then vandalized the embassy
The United Kingdom closed the Iranian embassy in London on Wednesday, ordering its diplomatic staff to leave the country within 48 hours in retaliation for the storming of the British embassy in Tehran by protesters.
Britain's Foreign Office withdrew all of its embassy staff and family members from Iran on Tuesday, but declined to say how many people would be affected. The embassy is now officially closed but some diplomatic work is continuing, marking the most severe diplomatic row since Britain and Iran re-established relations in 1999.
"This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "It is action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations."
Hague said he believed that the Iranian regime may have been complicit in the storming of the British embassy.
"The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could not have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful," Hague said.
In Oslo, a Norwegian government official said the country was also closing its embassy in Tehran due to security concerns.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hilde Steinfeld said the decision to close the Norwegian embassy, however, did not include evacuating staff.
Germany and other Western nations on Wednesday temporarily recalled their ambassador to Iran. The German foreign ministry called the storming of the British embassy by protesters "unacceptable."
Windows were broken and the British flag was taken down
A spokesman urged the Iranian government to "act urgently to bring the situation under control," claiming Tehran had a duty to protect diplomats and embassies under international law.
"There has been an incursion by a significant number of demonstrators into our embassy premises, including vandalism to our property," said the spokesman. "We are outraged by this. It is utterly unacceptable and we condemn it."
The violent attack on the British embassy came after London imposed sanctions on Iran's financial sector over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
Scores of protesters - believed to be students - stormed the embassy, ransacking offices and replacing the British flag with that of Iran. Iranian state television showed them throwing stones at embassy windows and entering the compound as Iranian police stood by. Officers did later enter the embassy grounds to remove the protesters.
Another group of hard-line students were also reported to have gathered at the gate of British ambassador's residence in northern Tehran. By Tuesday evening, protests at both locations had ended.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the "unacceptable" actions of "a small number of protesters."
"The relevant authorities have been asked to take the necessary measures and look into this issue immediately," it said.
Tehran police chief General Hossein Sajadinia told the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars that protesters had been arrested and would face prosecution in court.
EU, US considering further sanctions
The latest sanctions were part of a coordinated move announced on November 14 by Britain, the United States and Canada. Britain is the only one of the three countries to have an ambassador in Tehran. The US has no diplomatic mission, while that of Canada is headed only by more junior diplomats.
Britain has threatened that it will react "robustly" if Iran follows through on a decision to expel its ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, who only took up his post in October.
As news of the embassy attack broke, Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament that Britain expected other countries to introduce similar financial restrictions on the country.
The European Union and the US said Monday that they were considering sanctions in addition to those already announced.
EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on Thursday and are expected to announce measures targeting 200 Iranian individuals and firms.
Iran has repeatedly denied claims that its nuclear program - in particular the enrichment of uranium - has a military dimension, although a UN report this month has suggested the contrary.
The country is already subject to a series of UN sanctions, as well as sanctions imposed by individual states.
Author: Richard Connor, Gregg Benzow, Spencer Kimball (AFP, Reuters, AP)
Editor: Martin Kuebler