The Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980 was a siege of the Iranian embassy in London after it had been taken over by Arab separatists. The siege was ended when British special forces, the Special Air Service (SAS), stormed the building in Operation Nimrod. The incident brought the SAS to the world’s attention as the whole episode was played out in front of the media.
At 11:30 on 30 April 1980 a six-man team calling itself the Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRMLA), captured the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Prince’s Gate, South Kensington in central London.
Initially their demands were for the autonomy of an Arab-majority petroleum-rich region in southern Iran known as Khuzestan (the Arabistan of the group’s name); later they demanded the release of ninety-one of their comrades, alleged political prisoners of the Iranian government, held in jails in Iran.
When the men first stormed the building, twenty-six hostages were taken (including PC Trevor Lock, the police constable on official protection duty at the main entrance, and two visiting BBC personnel – journalist Chris Cramer and sound recordist Sim Harris – who had stopped by to pick up visas), but five were released over the following few days. Police negotiators attempted to mollify the radicals with supplies of food and cigarettes, and on the third day a statement by the group was broadcast on the BBC Radio 2 following threats to kill a hostage (which was missed by the group as they were tuning in to Radio 4 instead. The unit’s Iraqi handler had promised the group that the Jordanian ambassador would intervene to provide safe passage, but when it became clear this was not going to happen, the situation in the embassy deteriorated.
On the sixth day of the siege the group killed a hostage, press attaché Abbas Lavasani, and threw his body outside. This marked an escalation of the situation and prompted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to proceed with the rescue operation. The order to deploy a unit of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing of the SAS had been given in the first few hours of the siege. At the time B Squadron were currently on CRW duty. When the first hostage was shot, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, David McNee passed a note signed by Margaret Thatcher to the Ministry of Defence, stating this was now a “military operation”.
News teams were camped outside the embassy. A unit from the British news organisation ITN, using recently-introduced ENG camera equipment, managed to establish a viewpoint at the rear of the embassy. It was images from this vantage point that showed the SAS raid on the building live on television after their correspondent had been ‘tipped off’. However the SAS insisted on a short time-delay between the live events and their broadcast in case the militants were watching the broadcasts.
In preparation for storming the building, the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBRA) had various contacts including the Ministry of Transport and requested that aircraft taking off and landing from Heathrow Airport were told to reduce altitude and fly lower over the embassy and British Gas began noisy drilling in an adjoining street to provide noise cover as the SAS moved into position. Detailed architectural plans were obtained of the building, which were added to by the freed hostages and a detailed briefing from the caretaker (who revealed that the first two floors had bullet-proof glass installed, hence the use of explosive devices in the assault); plus a night time reconnaissance from their forward base at No.14 next door, which revealed a skylight in a top floor bathroom, and panoramic skylight on the second roof floor.
Prior to the attack the gunmen and hostages had been observed through fibre-optic probes that had been inserted through the shared wall of an adjoining building. Microphones were used to eavesdrop from the building next door. The raid had been rehearsed in a mock-up of the building in a nearby British army barracks in central London.
The plan consisted of five four-man teams (the hostages were located on the second floor, separated with men at the front, women at the rear of the building) :
• One team to the rear, entry via the first floor, entry from No.14’s balcony – as seen by BBC cameras
• One team through the second floor panoramic skylight to the stairwell, via abseiling
• One team through the second floor front balcony, via abseilling
• One team through the first floor door, clearing the basement
• One team through the first floor door, clearing the first floor
The assault started at 19:23 hours on 5 May 1980 (a Bank Holiday Monday) at the rear of the building with the detonation of an explosive charge above the skylight on the second floor shattering the glass and stunning anyone located on the second floor stairwell, 23 minutes after the dead hostage had been thrown from the building. Simultaneously, electrical power was cut to the building. Stun grenades were used to disorient the militants during the attack and the SAS were armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns.
One of the SAS team had his life saved by the action of hostage PC Lock. When the SAS team member appeared outside the window, one of the militants, Salim, took aim to fire. Salim was then rugby tackled by Lock, after which he was shot. PC Lock later received the George Cross for this action.
Five of the six gunmen were killed and nineteen hostages were saved. One of the militants was shot on the embassy staircase as the SAS were evacuating the building. One hostage was killed by a militant during the attack. One of the SAS men, Fijian Staff Sergeant “Tak” Takavesi, became tangled in his abseiling gear on his entry to the building. Before he could be cut free, a fire started by a stun grenade and fuelled by the curtains on the windows reached the sergeant, and he suffered minor burns. Takavesi carried on with the operation despite his injuries.
After the assault ended, the last surviving gunman, Fowzi Nejad, posed as a hostage and was escorted outside the embassy. There he was quickly identified as a gunman by a real hostage.