Iranian Embassy Siege 1980
This article is about the siege of the Iranian embassy in London. For the siege of the American embassy in Tehran, see Iran hostage crisis.
The Iranian Embassy siege took place from 30 April to 5 May 1980, after a group of six armed men stormed the Iranian embassy on Prince's Gate in South Kensington, London. The gunmen, Iranian Arabs campaigning for sovereignty of Khuzestan Province, took 26 people hostage, including embassy staff, several visitors, and a police officer who had been guarding the embassy. They demanded the release of prisoners in Khuzestan and their own safe passage out of the United Kingdom. The British government quickly decided that safe passage would not be granted and a siege ensued. Subsequently, police negotiators secured the release of five hostages in exchange for minor concessions, such as the broadcasting of the hostage-takers' demands on British television.
By the sixth day of the siege the gunmen were increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in meeting their demands. That evening, they killed a hostage and threw his body out of the embassy. The Special Air Service (SAS), a special forces regiment of the British Army, initiated "Operation Nimrod" to rescue the remaining hostages, abseiling from the roof and forcing entry through the windows. During the 17-minute raid they rescued all but one of the remaining hostages and killed five of the six hostage-takers. An inquest cleared the SAS of any wrongdoing. The sole remaining gunman served 27 years in British prisons.
The Iran–Iraq War broke out later that year and the hostage crisis in Tehran continued until January 1981. Nonetheless, the operation brought the SAS to the public eye for the first time and bolstered the reputation of Thatcher's government. The SAS was quickly overwhelmed by the number of applications it received from people inspired by the operation and experienced greater demand for its expertise from foreign governments. The building, damaged by fire during the assault, was not reopened until 1993. The SAS raid, televised live on a bank holiday evening, became a defining moment in British history and proved a career break for several journalists; it became the subject of multiple documentaries and works of fiction, including several films and television series.
The hostage-takers were members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), Iranian Arabs protesting for the establishment of an autonomous Arab state in the southern region of the Iranian province of Khūzestān (also known as Arabistan) which is home to an Arabic-speaking minority. The oil-rich area had become the source of much of Iran's wealth, having been developed by multi-national companies during the reign of the Shah.
According to Oan Ali Mohammed, suppression of the Arab sovereignty movement was the spark that led to his desire to attack the Iranian Embassy in London. The plan was inspired by the Iran hostage crisis in which supporters of the revolution held the staff of the American embassy in Tehran hostage.
Arrival in London
Using Iraqi passports, Oan and three other members of the DRFLA arrived in London on 31 March 1980 and rented a flat in Earl's Court, West London. They claimed they had met by chance on the flight. The men typically returned to the flat drunk, late at night, and sometimes accompanied by prostitutes. Within a week, the housekeeper asked them to leave. They soon found another flat, where they told their new landlord they were moving because they had been joined by other men and required larger accommodation. Over the following days, the group swelled, with up to a dozen men in the flat on one occasion.
Oan was 27 and from Khūzestān; he had studied at the University of Tehran, where he became politically active. He had been imprisoned by SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, and bore scars which he said were from torture in SAVAK custody. The other members of his group were Shakir Abdullah Radhil, known as "Faisal", Oan's second-in-command who also claimed to have been tortured by SAVAK; Shakir Sultan Said, or "Hassan"; Themir Moammed Hussein, or Abbas; Fowzi Badavi Nejad, or "Ali"; and Makki Hanoun Ali, the youngest of the group, who went by the name of "Makki".
On 30 April the men informed their landlord that they were going to Bristol for a week and then returning to Iraq, stated that they would no longer require the flat, and arranged for their belongings to be sent to Iraq. They left the building at 09:30 (BST) on 30 April. Their initial destination is unknown, but en route to the Iranian Embassy they collected firearms (including pistols and submachine guns), ammunition and hand grenades. The weapons, predominantly Soviet-made, are believed to have been smuggled into the United Kingdom in a diplomatic bag belonging to Iraq. Shortly before 11:30, and almost two hours after vacating the nearby flat in Lexham Gardens in South Kensington, the six men arrived outside the embassy.
Special Air Service
The Special Air Service (SAS) is a regiment of the British Army and part of the United Kingdom's special forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel David Stirling in Africa in 1941, at the height of the Second World War. Its original role was to penetrate enemy lines and strike at airfields and supply lines deep in enemy territory, first in North Africa and later around the Mediterranean and in occupied Europe. Stirling established the principle of using small teams, usually of just four men, to carry out raids, having realised that a four-man team could sometimes prove much more effective than a unit of hundreds of soldiers.
Western governments were prompted to form specialist anti-terrorist units following the Munich massacre—during the 1972 Olympic Games, a firefight between a group of hostage-takers and West German police left a police officer and all the hostages dead. The British government, worried that the country was unprepared for a similar crisis in the United Kingdom, ordered the formation of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) Wing of the SAS, which became the UK's primary anti-terrorist and anti-hijacking unit. The SAS had taken part in counter-insurgency operations abroad since 1945, and had trained the bodyguards of influential people whose deaths would be contrary to British interests. Thus, it was believed to be better prepared for the role than any unit in the police or elsewhere in the armed forces. The CRW Wing's first operational experience was the storming of Lufthansa Flight 181 in 1977, when a small detachment of soldiers were sent to assist GSG 9, the elite West German police unit set up after the events of 1972.
The two SAS teams on-scene, Red Team and Blue Team, were ordered to begin their simultaneous assaults, under the codename Operation Nimrod, at 19:23. One group of four men from Red Team abseiled from the roof down the rear of the building, while another four-man team lowered a stun grenade through the skylight. The detonation of the stun grenade was supposed to coincide with the abseiling teams detonating explosives to gain entry to the building through the second-floor windows. Their descent had not gone according to plan and the staff sergeant leading the abseilers became entangled in his rope. While trying to assist him, one of the other soldiers had accidentally smashed a window with his foot. The noise of the breaking window alerted Oan, who was on the first floor communicating with the police negotiators, and he went to investigate. The soldiers were unable to use explosives for fear of injuring their stranded staff sergeant, but managed to smash their way into the embassy.
Sim Harris making his escape across the first-floor balcony, as ordered by the masked SAS trooper (John T. McAleese) (far right) After the first three soldiers entered, a fire started and travelled up the curtains and out of the second-floor window, severely burning the staff sergeant. A second wave of abseilers cut him free, and he fell to the balcony below before entering the embassy behind the rest of his team. Slightly behind Red Team, Blue Team detonated explosives on a first-floor window; forcing Sim Harris, who had just run into the room, to take cover. Much of the operation at the front of the embassy took place in full view of the assembled journalists and was broadcast on live television, thus Harris's escape across the parapet of a first-floor balcony was famously captured on video.
As the soldiers emerged onto the first-floor landing, Lock tackled Oan to prevent him attacking the SAS operatives. Oan, still armed, was subsequently shot dead by one of the soldiers. Meanwhile, further teams entered the embassy through the back door and cleared the ground floor and cellar. During the raid, the gunmen holding the male hostages opened fire on their captives, killing Ali Akbar Samadzadeh and wounding two others. The SAS began evacuating hostages, taking them down the stairs towards the back door of the embassy. Two of the terrorists were hiding amongst the hostages; one of them produced a hand grenade when he was identified. An SAS soldier, who was unable to shoot for fear of hitting a hostage or another soldier, pushed the grenade-wielding terrorist to the bottom of the stairs, where two other soldiers shot him dead.
The raid lasted seventeen minutes and involved 30 to 35 soldiers. The terrorists killed one hostage and seriously wounded two others during the raid while the SAS killed all but one of the terrorists. The rescued hostages and the remaining terrorist, who was still concealed amongst them, were taken into the embassy's back garden and restrained on the ground while they were identified. The last terrorist was identified by Sim Harris and led away by the SAS.
After the end of the siege, PC Trevor Lock was widely considered a hero. He was awarded the George Medal, the United Kingdom's second-highest civil honour, for his conduct during the siege and for tackling Oan during the SAS raid, the only time during the siege that he drew his concealed side arm. In addition, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City of London and in a motion in the House of Commons. Police historian Michael J. Waldren, referring to the television series Dixon of Dock Green, suggested that Lock's restraint in the use of his revolver was "a defining example of the power of the Dixon image", and academic Maurice Punch noted the contrast between Lock's actions and the highly aggressive tactics of the SAS. Another academic, Steven Moysey, commented on the difference in outcomes between the Iranian Embassy siege and the 1975 Balcombe Street siege, in which the police negotiated the surrender of four Provisional Irish Republican Army members without military involvement. Nonetheless, the siege led to calls for increasing the firepower of the police to enable them to prevent and deal with similar incidents in the future, and an official report recommended that specialist police firearms units, such as the Metropolitan Police's D11, be better resourced and equipped.
Sergeant Tommy Palmer was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his part in the assault, in which he shot dead a terrorist who was apparently about to throw a grenade amongst the hostages. After the operation concluded, the staff sergeant who was caught in his abseil rope was treated at St Stephen's Hospital in Fulham. He suffered serious burns to his legs, but went on to make a full recovery.
The Iranian government welcomed the end of the siege, and declared that the two hostages killed were martyrs for the Iranian Revolution. They also thanked the British government for "the persevering action of your police force during the unjust hostage-taking event at the Embassy".
After the assault concluded, the police conducted an investigation into the siege and the deaths of the two hostages and five terrorists, including the actions of the SAS. The soldiers' weapons were taken away for examination and, the following day, the soldiers themselves were interviewed at length by the police at the regiment's base in Hereford. There was controversy over the deaths of two terrorists in the telex room, where the male hostages were held. Hostages later said in interviews that they had persuaded their captors to surrender and television footage appeared to show them throwing weapons out of the window and holding a white flag. The two SAS soldiers who killed the men both stated at the inquest into the terrorists' deaths that they believed the men had been reaching for weapons before they were shot. The inquest jury reached the verdict that the soldiers' actions were justifiable homicide (later known as "lawful killing").
Fowzi Nejad was the only gunman to survive the SAS assault. After being identified, he was dragged away by an SAS trooper, who allegedly intended to take him back into the building and shoot him. The soldier reportedly changed his mind when it was pointed out to him that the raid was being broadcast on live television. It later emerged that the footage from the back of the embassy was coming from a wireless camera placed in the window of a flat overlooking the embassy. The camera had been installed by ITN technicians, who had posed as guests of a local resident in order to get past the police cordon, which had been in place since the beginning of the siege. Nejad was arrested, and was eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the siege. He became eligible for parole in 2005.
As a foreign national, he would normally have been immediately deported to his home country but Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998, has been held by the European Court of Human Rights to prohibit deportation in cases where the person concerned would be likely to be tortured or executed in his home country. Nejad was eventually paroled in 2008 and granted leave to remain in the UK, but was not given political asylum. The Home Office released a statement, saying "We do not give refugee status to convicted terrorists. Our aim is to deport people as quickly as possible but the law requires us to first obtain assurances that the person being returned will not face certain death". After 27 years in prison, Nejad was deemed no longer to be a threat to society, but Trevor Lock wrote to the Home Office to oppose his release. Because it is accepted by the British government that he would be executed or tortured, he cannot be deported to Iran; he now lives in south London, having assumed another identity.
Prior to 1980, London had been the scene of several terrorist incidents related to Middle East politics, including the assassination of the former prime minister of the Republic of Yemen, and an attack on a coach containing staff from the Israeli airline El Al. Although there were other isolated incidents relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics in the years following the embassy siege, most prominently the murder of Yvonne Fletcher from inside the Libyan embassy in 1984, historian Jerry White believed the resolution of the siege "effectively marked the end of London's three years as a world theatre for the resolution of Middle Eastern troubles".
The SAS raid, codenamed "Operation Nimrod", was broadcast live at peak time on a bank holiday Monday evening and was viewed by millions of people, mostly in the UK, making it a defining moment in British history. Both the BBC and ITV interrupted their scheduled programming, the BBC interrupting the broadcast of the World Snooker Championship final, to show the end of the siege, which proved to be a major career break for several journalists. Kate Adie, the BBC's duty reporter at the embassy when the SAS assault began, went on to cover Nejad's trial and then to report from war zones across the world and eventually to become chief news correspondent for BBC News, while David Goldsmith and his team, responsible for the hidden camera at the back of the embassy, were awarded a BAFTA for their coverage. The success of the operation, combined with the high-profile it was given by the media, invoked a sense of national pride compared to Victory in Europe Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. The operation was declared "an almost unqualified success". Margaret Thatcher recalled that she was congratulated wherever she went over the following days, and received messages of support and congratulation from other world leaders. However, the incident strained already-tense relations between the UK and Iran following the Iranian Revolution. The Iranian government declared that the siege of the embassy was planned by the British and American governments, and that the hostages who had been killed were martyrs for the Revolution.
Operation Nimrod brought the SAS, a regiment that had fallen into obscurity after its fame during the Second World War (partly owing to the covert nature of its operations), back into the public eye. The regiment was not pleased with its new high profile, having enjoyed its previous obscurity. Nonetheless, the operation vindicated the SAS, which had been threatened with disbandment and whose use of resources had previously been considered a waste. The regiment was quickly overwhelmed by new applicants. Membership of 22 SAS is open only to individuals currently serving in the Armed Forces (allowing applications from any individual in any service), but the unit also has two regiments from the volunteer Territorial Army (TA): 21 SAS and 23 SAS. Both the TA regiments received hundreds more applications than in previous years, prompting de la Billière to remark that the applicants seemed "convinced that a balaclava helmet and a sub-machine gun would be handed to them over the counter, so that they could go off and conduct embassy-style sieges of their own". Meanwhile, the SAS became a sought-after assignment for career army officers. All three units were forced to introduce additional fitness tests at the start of the application process. The SAS also experienced an increased demand for their expertise in training the forces of friendly countries and those whose collapse was considered not to be in Britain's interest. The government developed a protocol for lending the SAS to foreign governments to assist with hijackings or sieges, and it became fashionable for politicians to be seen associating with the regiment. Despite its new fame, the SAS did not have a high profile during the 1982 Falklands War, partly due to a lack of successful operations, and next came to the fore during the 1990–1991 Gulf War.
The British government's response to the crisis, and the successful use of force to end it, strengthened the Conservative government of the day and boosted Thatcher's personal credibility. McNee believed that the conclusion of the siege exemplified the British government's policy of refusing to give in to terrorist demands, "nowhere was the effectiveness of this response to terrorism more effectively demonstrated".
The embassy building was severely damaged by fire. It was more than a decade before the British and Iranian governments came to an agreement whereby the United Kingdom would repair the damage to the embassy in London and Iran would pay for repairs to the British embassy in Tehran, which had been damaged during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iranian diplomats began working from 16 Princes Gate again in December 1993.
The DRFLA was undermined by its links with the Iraqi government after it emerged that Iraq had sponsored the training and equipping of the hostage-takers. The Iran–Iraq War started five months after the end of the siege and continued for eight years. The campaign for autonomy of Khūzestān was largely forgotten in the wake of the hostilities, as was the DRFLA.