Iran recalls its ambassador in Cyprus

May 10, 2013, 3:06 PM EDT
The Cypriot (L) and European Union (R) flags are seen flying outside the office of the bank employees' union ETYK in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on April 4, 2013, as bank employees demonstrated over fears that pensions may be at risk under Cyprus's bailout.
AFP/Getty Images

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Iran has withdrawn its ambassador in Cyprus to protest the country's decision to extradite an Iranian to the United States for prosecution, officials said Friday.

The Cyprus Foreign Ministry said Iran objected to last month's extradition of Iranian Saeid Mohabat to the U.S. to face charges of breaching United Nations sanctions against Iran, and that Iran responded by recalling its ambassador on Wednesday "for consultations" in Tehran.

Cyprus acted after one of its courts ruled there was enough evidence to indicate that Mohabat may have "committed serious offenses" and that authorities were therefore obligated to satisfy a U.S. extradition request under international law, the ministry said in a statement.

Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary Andreas Mavroyiannis told The Associated Press that Iran was displeased with the extradition but that Mohabat had received due process under the law.

Government spokesman Christos Stylianides said Cyprus was "absolutely bound" to its international obligations. However, he expressed hope the issue won't harm his country's ties with Iran.

"We believe that our relations with Iran and bilateral cooperation won't be affected as a result of this incident and will remain at their current levels for the mutual benefit of both people," Stylianides said.

Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said Mohabat, 45, was sought for his alleged role in a bid to transfer "prohibited weapons systems" from the U.S. to Iran in violation of U.N. sanctions imposed regarding Tehran's nuclear program. He said Cypriot authorities arrested Mohabat when he arrived in the country on the strength of an Interpol warrant.

The U.S., Israel and many Western nations fear Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran denies this, insisting that the program is designed for peaceful purposes.

In 2009, Cyprus seized about 85 containers of gunpowder and some nitroglycerine from a Cypriot-flagged ship suspected of transporting it from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza via Syria. The United Nations ruled that the ship had breached a ban on Iranian arms exports.

The containers were left piled in a field inside a naval base for 2 ½ years until July 11, 2011, when they exploded, killing 13 people and nearly destroying the country's largest power station.

A public inquiry concluded that Cyprus' government had allowed the matter to linger as it tried to decide what to do with the shipment without upsetting Syria or Iran. The inquiry said then-President Dimitris Christofias was primarily responsible for "inadequacy, negligence and carelessness" that led to the blast.

Christofias rejected the nonbinding findings.