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Five of the nine Iranian employees of the British embassy in Tehran that had been arrested were released on Monday, even as Iran continued to insist that Britain was involved in organizing protests over the results of the country's June 12 election, which many Iranians believe was rigged to return incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
The BBC reports that Iranian intelligence officials appear to be using the embassy employees still in their custody to make the case that the election protests had only a limited domestic component.
"Iran's Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hoseyn Mohseni-Ezhei on Sunday said "the British embassy played a crucial role in the recent unrest both through its local staff and via media", Iran's Irna news agency reported. "We have photos and videos of certain local employees of the British embassy, who collected news about the protests.
"The embassy sent staff among the rioters to direct them in order to escalate the riots so that the rioters could file fabricated reports about the [rallies] to the world rom various locations," the Iranian minister added.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, about 3,000 protestors took to the streets of Tehran, some shouting "Where is my vote?" before they were violently dispersed, the Associated Press reported.
Witnesses said riot police used tear gas and clubs to break up a crowd of up to 3,000 protesters who had gathered near north Tehran's Ghoba Mosque in the country's first major post-election unrest in four days.
Some described scenes of brutality, telling the Associated Press that some protesters suffered broken bones and alleging that police beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who then fought back.
Some analysts believe that the highly unusual detention of embassy employees is part of a deliberate effort to ratchet up tensions with the West, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Nader Mousavizadeh, a diplomatic expert and consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the arrests show that the forces around Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are attempting to create more antagonism with the outside world.
"They think it will serve their interests in the near term and justify their hard line in domestic policy because they can say, 'Look, the rest of the world is out to get us,' " Mr. Mousavizadeh said. "A more open, engaged Iran is one that will want more choices about relations with the outside world, about women's rights, about political rights. And that fundamentally doesn't serve the interests of the hardline faction now in control."
Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan, writes on his blog Informed Comment that mass protests are likely over for now in Iran because "security forces are too well organized and too loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to allow it." He also writes that former Iranian President Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani appears to have abandoned Mir Hossein Mousavi – the man the protestors feel had the election stolen from him – over the weekend, a "bad sign" for the challenger.
Rafsanjani has clearly decided to defer to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on handling the outcome of the elections, and has come out as critical of the crowd politics and occasional turbulence they produced. As a multi-billionaire and man of the establishment, he may well have been frightened that the massive street rallies for Mousavi a week ago signaled a danger to the status quo, which he is attempting to preserve.