Thursday, 7 July 2016

437 The Iranian Embassy Siege

First  viewed  :  5  May  1980

I  purposely  didn't  mention  this  in  the  Snooker  post  but  anyone  who  was  watching  Cliff Thorburn  grinding  his  way  to  victory  against  Alex  Higgins  on  the  May  Day   Bank  Holiday 1980  ( or  indeed  the  John  Wayne  film  on  BBC1 ) will  never  forget  the  broadcast's  sudden and dramatic  interruption  at 19.23 pm  by  live   coverage  of  an  extraordinary  scene  developing  in Central  London.

Six  days  earlier  half  a  dozen  gunmen  from  Iran's  Arabic  minority  had  stormed  the  Iranian  embassy  after  overpowering  - but   not  killing - the  sole  policeman  on  guard  outside. They  were  not  fundamentally  opposed  to  the  Khomenei  regime  which  had  taken  power  just  over  a  year  earlier  but  wished  to  take  advantage  of  the  confusion  to  gain  autonomy  for  their  southern  province. The  immediate  aim  of  the  siege  was  to  obtain  the  release  of  a  large  number  of  political  prisoners  in  Iran.

The  British  authorities  were  placed  in  the  position  of  refereeing  someone  else's  fight  on  their  patch, made  more  difficult  by  the  Iranian  government's  exceptionally  hostile  attitude  to  the  West  ( despite  Khomenei  enjoying  the  hospitality  of  the  French  during  his  years  in  exile ).  What  gave  Margaret  Thatcher's  government  more  interest  in  the  affair  was  that  besides  the  captured  policeman  Trevor  Lock, the  gunmen  were  holding  three  other  British  hostages  including  two  BBC  technicians  who'd  gone  in  for  a  visa.

The  negotiations  did  seem  to  be  making  headway. The  gunmen  had  not  carried  out  their  threat  to  shoot  someone  when  their  first  deadline  expired  and  a  number  of  distressed  hostages  had  been  released  unharmed,  including  one  of  the  BBC  guys  who  was  experiencing  stomach  pains. What  changed  matters  on  that  Monday  was  the  execution  of  a  hostage,  Abbas  Levansani. As  soon  as  his  body  was  dumped  outside  the  embassy,  Home  Secretary  William  Whitelaw  put  a  covert  Plan  B  into  operation; the  building  would  be  stormed  by  the  Special  Air  Service.

It  was  a  frightfully  risky  decision. Two  previous  counter-terrorist  operations  in  the  past  decade  had  gone  frightfully  wrong. West  Germany's  attempt  to  rescue  the  Israeli  hostages  in  Munich  had  resulted  in  them  all  being  slaughtered  while  President  Carter's  operation  to  rescue  the  US  hostages  in  Iran  had  come  to  grief  in  the  Iranian  desert  just  weeks  earlier. On  the  other  hand  Israel's  spectacular  raid  on  Entebbe  Airport  to  resolve  a  hostage  crisis  in  1976  had  been  a  stunning  success. The  S.A.S.  motto  "Who  Dares  Wins"  could  equally  apply  to  Whitelaw.

TV  cameras  were  on  hand  to  capture  the  drama , at  least  at  the  front  of  the  building ; there  were  simultaneous  operations  going  on  out  of  sight  round  the  back. Black  clad  figures  in  hoods  and  gas  masks  abseiled  down  the  front  of  the  building  to  a  first  floor  balcony  where  they  blew  out  the  windows  with  incendiary  bombs  and  went  in  shooting. While  reporters  including  the  young  Kate  Adie  scrambled  to  make  sense  of  the  scene, cameras  caught  the  stumble  to  safety  of  the  other  BBC  guy  Sim  Harris  as  one  of  the  soldiers  beckoned  him  to  cross  over  to  a  secured   adjacent   balcony.

Within  minutes  the  siege  was  over   at  the  cost  of  one  more  Iranian  death  and  two  woundings  among  the  hostages. An  SAS  man  was  injured  during  the  operation  though  by  a  mishap  not  terrorist  action. Five  out  of   the  six  gunmen  were  killed   ( two  while  they  were  apparently  trying  to  surrender  though  they  had  just  raked  the  hostages  ; the  inquest  jury  absolved  the  SAS ).   The  last  guy  survived  by  hiding  among  the  hostages  until  identified  by  Harris. He  was  released  on  parole  after  28  years  in  UK  prisons  and   now  lives in  a  legal  limbo  as  the  Human  Rights  Act  precludes  his  deportation  to  Iran.

The  raid  was  a  huge  success  for  the  government  and  brought  the  S.A.S. , formerly   a  shadowy  unit  operating  largely  in  Northern  Ireland,  a   worldwide  prestige  and  formidable  reputation  that  endures  to  this  day. A  film  based  on  their  exploits  was  soon  in  production  starring  Lewis  Collins.

The  Iranian  government  were  incredibly  churlish  about  the  rescue  of  their  diplomatic  staff. They  made  a  grudging  statement  of  appreciation  but  any  fond  hopes  that  they  might  release  their   US  hostages  in  response  were  soon  dashed  and  incredibly  negotiations  for  the  repair  of  the  building  dragged  on  until  1993.

The  irony   of  the  assault  is  that   it  may  well  have  been  unnecessary. The  organisation  the  gunmen   represented  was  a   potential  ally  against  Khomenei  and  their  treatment  of  Lock  in  particular  suggests  that  they  were  not  inclined  to  harm  the  British  hostages.  The   releases  during  the  siege  indicate  they  were  not  inhumane. The  event  that  triggered  the  assault  was  caused  by  Levensani, a  Khomenei  fanatic's  own  desire  for  Islamic  martyrdom; he  provoked  them  into  it. But  of  course  we  understand  such  things  rather  better  now  than  we  did  then.            

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