NEW YORK – Iran dismissed the idea of downgrading diplomatic relations with Britain on Monday despite soaring tensions between the two countries after Iranian authorities detained local British Embassy employees for allegedly stirring up post-election unrest.
Britain has angrily denied that any Iranian staff at its embassy in Tehran have been involved in opposition challenges to the regime. On Sunday, the European Union condemned the detentions as "harassment and intimidation" and demanded the immediate release of those still in custody.
Iran has accused the West of stoking unrest, singling out Britain and the United States. Both countries have expressed concern about the ferocity of the regime's crackdown on supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he was robbed of victory in a June 12 presidential election through massive and widespread vote fraud.
Iranian officials had said they were considering downgrading ties with Britain, which expelled two Iranian diplomats last week — a retaliatory move after Iran ousted two British envoys.
But in a press conference broadcast on state television Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said: "Reduction of diplomatic ties is not on our agenda for any country, including Britain."
Qashqavi said Iranian officials have been in written and verbal contact with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and that he has assured Tehran that Britain would not interfere in Iranian affairs. He said nine embassy employees were arrested and five later released, and that the four still in custody were under interrogation.
The escalating diplomatic dispute came as riot police clashed with up to 3,000 protesters — some chanting: "Where is my vote?" — near the Ghoba Mosque in north Tehran on Sunday. It was Iran's first major post-election unrest in four days.
Witnesses told The Associated Press that police used tear gas and clubs to break up the crowd, and said some demonstrators suffered broken bones. They alleged that security forces beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who then fought back.
The reports could not be independently verified because of tight restrictions imposed on journalists in Iran.
North Tehran is a base of support for Mousavi, who insists he — not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — won the disputed election.
Witnesses who spoke with the AP said they did not spot Mousavi at Sunday's rally. But one of his close assistants addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker and other opposition figures also appeared, including reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi.
Sunday's clashes erupted at a rally that had been planned to coincide with a memorial held each year for Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who came to be considered a martyr in the Islamic Republic after he was killed in a major anti-regime bombing in 1981.
Iranian authorities say 17 protesters and eight members of the volunteer Basij militia have been killed in two weeks of unrest, and that hundreds of people have been arrested.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said its information suggests at least 2,000 arrests have been made — "not just (people) arrested and later released, but who are locked up in prison," the group's vice president, Abdol Karim Lahidji, told the AP.
He said his information came from members of human rights groups in Iran and other contacts inside the country.
Miliband dismissed the allegations that embassy staff were involved in protests as "wholly without foundation."
But Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseini Ejehi insisted in an interview with state television broadcast late Sunday that he has videotape proof showing that some "were distinctly present at the scene of clashes" and mingled with the crowds to encourage unrest.
Ejehi said the fate of those who remain in custody now rests with Iran's judiciary, which is tightly controlled by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's escalating standoff with the West complicated President Barack Obama's hopes of engaging the regime in dialogue over its nuclear program. Iran insists its program is peaceful and geared solely toward generating electricity; the U.S. and its allies contend that Tehran is covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon.
U.S. officials said Sunday that the administration remains open to discussions on Iran's nuclear ambitions despite questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad.
"It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."