Official says Iranian diplomats who defected chose to stay abroad for 'personal interests'

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's foreign ministry on Tuesday criticized two Iranian diplomats who defected this month in Europe, saying they chose to stay abroad for "personal interests."

The two diplomats have themselves said their decisions were politically motivated and they left their positions because of the government's crackdown on citizens protesting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election.

The remarks by foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast were Iran's first official confirmation of the defections, which were seen as a new sign of fissures within Iran's establishment.

Farzad Farhangian said he had quit his job as press attache at the Iranian Embassy in Brussels and that he would ask Norway for political asylum. Hossein Alizadeh, the No. 2 man at Iran's mission in Helsinki, said he would seek political asylum in Finland.

"Nobody in the foreign ministry believes their intentions were political," Mehmanparast told reporters in Tehran. "This can mostly be seen as they preferring their personal interests to the national interest."

The spokesman said the diplomats had completed their missions over a year ago and suggested that if they were truly defectors, they would not have "announced it 15 months after ending their missions."

Mehmanparast added that one of the diplomats, Alizadeh, had already postponed his return once last year, citing his children's education.

In his comments, Mehmanparast carefully chose his words — opting to say the diplomats "refused to return" home rather than describing them as defectors. But the remarks were still unusual for Iran, where defections are not openly discussed.

Another Iranian diplomat had defected in January — consular official Mohammed Reza Heydari left his post in Oslo and was granted political asylum in Norway, which is home to about 2,500 Iranian immigrants. Around 300 were granted political asylum in 2008 and 2009, according to Norway's immigration statistics.

Mehmanparast also said that over the past three decades only 20 Iranian diplomats had refused to return home after their missions ended, out of thousands who had gone abroad on three-year diplomatic assignments.

The Iranian unrest after the June 2009 election was the country's worst domestic upheaval since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Charges of election fraud prompted massive street protests by opposition supporters and a fierce crackdown by authorities.

More than 100 activists and opposition members have since been put on trial on security charges. More than 80 of them have been sentenced to prison terms from six months to 15 years, and 10 of them have been sentenced to death. The death sentences are now under appeal.

The unrest exposed divisions among authorities as well as ordinary citizens. Even some Muslim clerics rejected the election results. And although largely stifled in Iran now, opposition forces overseas, have rallied activists.