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.