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UK and Iran order tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Tuesday it was throwing out two Iranian diplomats in response to Tehran's expulsion of two British diplomats as relations hit a new low following Iran's disputed presidential election.
Iran accused the British diplomats of "activities incompatible with their diplomatic status," Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said. He rejected the charge -- often used to denote spying -- as baseless.
Iran has accused Britain of interfering in its internal affairs after the June 12 election that sparked demonstrations in which at least 17 people have been killed.
Official results handed hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory, but defeated candidate Mirhossein Mousavi has alleged the vote was rigged.
"Iran yesterday took the unjustified step of expelling two British diplomats over allegations which are absolutely without foundation," Brown told parliament.
"In response to that action, we informed the Iranian ambassador today that we would expel two Iranian diplomats from their embassy in London," he said.
Diplomats have been given one week to leave on both sides, Brown's spokesman said. He would not give the rank of the diplomats involved.
Iranian Ambassador Rasoul Movahedian was called to the Foreign Office on Tuesday and told of the British decision by Peter Ricketts, a senior official, the spokesman said.
Speaking in Warsaw, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Iran had given no explanation or evidence for the expulsions.
"We believe that an attack on one European country is an attack on all European countries," he said of the Iranian move.
Iranian authorities did not immediately say anything about the diplomatic row.
Britain has a long history of involvement in Iran and many Iranians remain suspicious of its motives.
Britain and Iran have frequently clashed over Iran's nuclear program, which London suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying it only wants nuclear power for generating electricity.
Britain's initial response to the Iranian election was muted. But the rhetoric on both sides has since escalated.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week attacked interference by foreign powers, calling Britain the "most treacherous" of Iran's enemies.
Brown has condemned violence and media censorship in Iran.
Some commentators suggest Iran may be singling out Britain as a scapegoat because it does not want to reject out of hand recent overtures by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Brown said on Tuesday he was "disappointed that Iran has placed us in this position, but we will continue to seek good relations with Iran and to call for the regime to respect the human rights and democratic freedoms of the Iranian people."
"We do not wish a quarrel with Iran. We wish to work with them on international matters that require both our attention," he said, apparently referring to the nuclear dispute.
Britain suspended its diplomatic ties with Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, only reopening an embassy in 1988, following the Iran-Iraq war.
Relations were downgraded again in the early 1990s, with full normalization only taking place in 1998.
In 2007, 15 British sailors and marines were seized by Iran in the Gulf and released after a tense 13-day standoff.
(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Warsaw)
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
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