Terrorists seize Iranian Embassy in London
At 11.30 on the morning of April 30 1980, six armed southern Iranian terrorists surprised the PC on guard duty outside the Iranian embassy, bundling him inside at gunpoint. Within the building in Prince’s Gate, South Kensington, the gunmen found a further 25 hostages, mostly diplomats, but also including two BBC staff picking up visas, and some tourists.
The terrorists said they represented the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan, protesting about oppression by the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini of their region of Iran, the predominantly ethnically Arab province of Khuzestan.
One of the BBC staff, reporter Chris Cramer, was made to telex a list of their demands to the outside world. The first, independence for their homeland, was startlingly huge. They also wanted the release of 91 political prisoners from prisons in Iran, and a plane to take the gunmen and their hostages to freedom.
To facilitate negotiations they demanded that Arab diplomats be involved as mediators. It is believed that the group had been equipped and prepared by Iraqis intent on causing problems for their Iranian enemies, and that they were told that they would be helped by Arab diplomats. As Khuzestan is one of Iran’s oil-producing areas it would be particularly destabilising if trouble were stirred up there.
Soldiers of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare section of the SAS (Special Air Service) were immediately put on alert. Specially trained men were moved to London from the regiment’s base in Hereford. The government committee to handle national emergencies, named COBRA (the acronym derived from Cabinet Office Briefing Room, where it met) was activated, headed by Home Secretary William Whitelaw.
Police negotiators began talking to the leader of the group, “Salim”, whose real name was Awn Ali Mohammed, the only member of the cell able to speak English. A conciliatory line was taken by the police, hoping to avert violence, with vague promises about demands being met and attempts to get Arab diplomats involved.
From the outset the SAS preparation was meticulous: blueprints of the building were obtained and studied; a mock-up of the embassy was organised to enable training for a raid on it to begin; the embassy caretaker was found and pumped for information; it was arranged that holes be drilled through a party-wall for fibre-optic devices to spy on happenings in the building, and a sensitive listening devices were lowered down chimneys by MI5 surveillance experts.
The danger of these activities being heard by the terrorists was reduced by arranging for flights to London’s airports to pass over the area far lower than normal, giving periods of noisy cover for drilling. Additionally a British Gas road drill was set to work nearby at strategic moments.
The one problem that took time to sort out was that the Post Office could not locate the phone lines in order to cut the terrorists’ contact with the outside world. Before this was done on day two they had called the media and even the Iranian foreign minister, maximising publicity at the expense of serious negotiation.
Thus if SAS forces were to intervene, they would be properly equipped and prepared. Decades after the events, information about the equipment used by the SAS at Prince’s Gate has still not been released. Only weeks before the siege the Americans had botched an attempt to rescue the hostages in their embassy in Tehran, and from government documents released since the events in Prince’s Gate, PM Margaret Thatcher was intent on avoiding a similar humiliation.
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