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Iran accuses Britain of digging tunnel to ferry spies into embassy

London Guardian | August 11, 2007
Robert Tait

Ascribing sinister motives to Britain has long been an integral part of Iranian culture and political life. But now pro-government hardliners have accused the country they label the "old fox" of plumbing new depths of chicanery by digging a tunnel to ferry spies and prostitutes into its embassy in Tehran.

Iranian authorities claim to have uncovered a long subterranean passage leading to the embassy compound, which occupies a large area in the centre of the Iranian capital. The tunnel was reportedly found by builders digging in a nearby alley.

It is said to pass beneath a carpet shop and under Ferdowsi Street, one of Tehran's busiest thoroughfares and the site of the embassy's main entrance.

At a time of heightened paranoia over supposed western-backed plots to topple Iran's Islamic regime, conservative hawks have seized on the alleged discovery to stir up fears about Britain, whose meddling in Iranian affairs in the 19th and 20th centuries has left an enduring effect on the national psyche.

Raja News, a fundamentalist website linked to the wife of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official spokesman, claimed the tunnel had been used for trafficking prostitutes and spies. It quoted an unnamed security official who attributed the information to a former employee of the embassy.

The allegations are short on facts. But they have been taken seriously enough for three rightwing MPs to table a written demand in parliament for an "immediate and serious investigation" by the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and the intelligence minister, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ezhei, who this week reiterated government suspicions that Britain and the US are plotting a "soft revolution" against Iran.

The claims play to deep-seated prejudices about Britain, which many Iranians believe continues to dominate their affairs by stealth.

In a telling tribute to supposed British prowess, people judged knowledgeable and worldly-wise are commonly nicknamed "Churchill".

British officials insist they have no knowledge of any tunnel. Asked if the passage could be an Iranian construction designed for eavesdropping on embassy business, a spokesman said: "I am certain that's not true."

The spokesman added: "There are obviously some elements in parliament and elsewhere which are determined to have a campaign against all things British and I suppose this could be part of that. But we are not inclined to give these allegations the time of day."

While orchestrated campaigns against Britain are a part of the Iranian political landscape, protests have been more frequent recently. Last month, a conference with official links was staged to investigate Britain's ownership of Gholhak, a residential compound in north Tehran which conservatives claim is held illegally and want returned to Iran.

In June, demonstrators held an angry protest outside the embassy to deter Iranians from attending the Queen's birthday party. The rightwing media had alleged beforehand that Britain had invited "thousands" of influential artists, writers and intellectuals in an attempt to undermine the Islamic system.

Iran is angry at Britain's leading role in attempting to block its nuclear programme through UN security council sanctions. Britain's ambassador to Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, told the semi-official Fars news agency last month that the west had lost Iran's confidence on the issue.

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