France is to pull out part of its diplomatic staff from Tehran following the ransacking of Britain's embassy this week by a pro-regime mob, adding to the international backlash against an increasingly defensive Iran.
The decision -- a temporary precaution, French diplomats said Saturday -- underlined the seriousness of the crisis developing between Iran and the West amid the ratcheting up of sanctions over Tehran's controversial nuclear efforts.
Britain has already evacuated all staff from its Tehran embassy following Tuesday's rampage, and ordered Iran's mission in London closed.
The expelled Iranian diplomats arrived back in Tehran early on Saturday, passing through airport service corridors to avoid media -- and a pro-regime welcoming crowd of 150 yelling "Death to Britain."
The European Union on Thursday slapped extra sanctions on Iran and warned more could be on the way because of the embassy assault, while the US Congress is poised to pass a law aimed at disrupting Iran's oil revenues processed through its central bank.
Political tensions are rising in tandem with speculation that Israel is mulling air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, with or without US backing.
France's decision to downsize its diplomatic representation came after the French, German, Dutch and Italian ambassadors were recalled for consultations on the British embassy assault.
Several of France's embassy personnel will be pulled out in the next few days along with all families and dependants of all the staff, French diplomats told AFP.
They did not give precise figures for how many of the roughly 30 diplomats in Tehran would go.
The 700-strong French community in Tehran -- mostly Iranian-French dual citizens -- has not received any instructions.
"Now the British government is trying to involve other European countries in our bilateral issue," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, according to the Fars news agency.
"But we have told the Europeans not to trouble relations with Iran because of Britain," he said.
Iranian officials have been defiant over the degrading British ties, saying a parliamentary vote before the ransacking of the British embassy to expel Britain's ambassador over strengthened Western sanctions was justified.
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But on Saturday, a senior cleric sought to disavow any connection between Iran's regime and the hundreds of pro-regime militia members who trashed the embassy and another British diplomatic compound.
"It is highly likely that in these situations, elements infiltrate our devoted youth in order to cause some damage and to spark worldwide propaganda against us, which is what they did," Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said in a statement on his website.
Shirazi implicitly rejected British assertions the embassy was assaulted with the backing and connivance of the authorities, while warning Iran could be hurt by the backlash.
"It is important to note that sometimes certain actions overstep the law... And we could pay a high price for it," he said.
Britain's evacuated ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, had said the attack could not have happened without "the acquiescence and support of the (Iranian) state."
Shirazi's defensive comments seemed for the first time to hint at an effort to halt a rising anti-British campaign in Iran.
But it was unclear whether that stance was shared by other factions in power.
The foreign ministry, which expressed its "regret" in the wake of the attack, is now suggesting Britain was too hasty to blame the regime.
"We have the Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi's remarks today, which show the contradictions in their (the West's) remarks," the deputy foreign minister in charge of consular affairs, Hassan Ghashghavi, told the state-run Jam-e Jam satellite channel.
But parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani has justified the rampage as an understandable and legitimate response to "the domineering policy" of Britain.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior government officials have not yet commented on the embassy attack.
Ghashghavi, in his interview with Jam-e Jam, said Britain's decision to kick out Iran's diplomats and close its Tehran embassy meant "the future is unclear" for bilateral relations, even though ties have not been completely severed.
He said the estimated 200,000-300,000 Iranians residing in Britain would be badly affected, but Iran had formed a "committee" to provide support for them at a distance.
"This British action was a very irresponsible move against their immigrants," he said. "This should be reviewed from the point of view of human rights. How could they leave passports hanging in their embassy here and in ours there?"