The Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980 was a siege of the Iranian embassy in London after it had been taken over by Iranian 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 the group's demands were for the autonomy of an Arab-majority petroleum-rich region in southern Iran known as Khūzestān (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 group first stormed the building, 26 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 gunmen with supplies of food and cigarettes, and on the third day a statement by the group was broadcast on 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 kidnappers killed a hostage, press attaché Lavasani, and threw his body outside. Covered by armed police, two men carrying a stretcher collected his body and took it to an ambulance, while keeping low to avoid gunfire. 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.
The Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) had various contacts, including the Ministry of Transport. To mask preparations for the storming of the building, aircraft taking off and landing from Heathrow Airport were told to reduce altitude and fly lower over the embassy. British Gas began noisy drilling in an adjoining street to provide noise cover as the SAS moved into position. Detailed architectural plans of the building were obtained, and additional information given by the freed hostages and a detailed briefing from the caretaker (who revealed that the first two floors had a very high grade of bullet-resistant glass installed, hence the use of frame charges rather than sledgehammers in the assault). A nighttime reconnaissance from a forward base at No. 14 next door revealed a skylight in a top floor bathroom and a panoramic skylight on the second floor roof. Consideration was briefly given to a stealth entry via the skylight during the night-time, in which the terrorists would have been shot with sound-suppressed weapons while they were sleeping. However the plan was abandoned.
Prior to the attack, the kidnappers and hostages had been observed through fibre-optic probes inserted through the shared wall of an adjoining building. Microphones were used to eavesdrop from the building next door. The raid was rehearsed in a mock-up of the building in a nearby British army barracks in central London.
Hostages were located on the second floor, with men at the front and women at the rear of the building. The attacking force consisted of five four-man teams:
- 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 abseiling
- 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 to the building was cut. Stun grenades were used to disorientate the gunmen during the attack and the SAS were armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns and 9mm Browning Hi-Power pistols.
Five of the six militants were killed and nineteen hostages were saved. One of those killed was shot on the embassy staircase as the SAS were evacuating the building. One hostage was killed by a kidnapper 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, who suffered minor burns. Takavesi carried on with the operation despite his injuries. PC Lock received the George Medal for his actions. In the aftermath of the siege it was learned that, amazingly, Lock had managed to retain his side arm throughout his imprisonment.
After the assault ended, the last surviving gunman, Fowzi Nejad, posed as a hostage and was escorted outside the embassy with the others. There, a real hostage quickly identified him as one of the attackers. An SAS soldier began to take him back inside the building, allegedly to be shot. He was prevented from doing so when it was pointed out to him that the world's media were watching.