In formulating their strategy towards Iran, British policymakers should recall the dramatic events which took place forty years ago today at the Iranian Embassy in London, which became known as the Iranian Embassy siege. The outcome, a successful British military operation against terrorist hostage takers, highlights that the United Kingdom (UK) should not compromise in the face of terrorism or hostage taking; however, the episode also serves as an important reminder that despite Britain’s attempts to make inroads with Iran, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to respond in kind and will continue to spout tales of British conspiracies and refuse to abide by international law or convention.
The siege at the Iranian Embassy in London
On 30th April 1980 – while the world was still watching the ongoing siege at the United States (US) Embassy in Tehran – six armed men, members of the recently established Democratic Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), a group that sought the secession of the Khuzestan province from Iran, stormed into the Iranian Embassy in Kensington, London, taking 26 people hostage. The majority of the captives were embassy staff and Iranian nationals; however, there were also some non-Iranians present as well as a British police officer. Over the course of the next six days a hostage crisis ensued with the terrorists demanding the release of at least 91 Arab prisoners held in Iran, as well as their own safe passage out of Britain. At different times during the crisis, the terrorists threatened to blow up the building and execute each of the hostages until their demands were met.
Despite their continued occupation of the embassy building and their resort to execute one of the hostages, the terrorists were ultimately defeated without any of their demands met. The British Special Air Service (SAS) were dispatched and launched Operation Nimrod. The elite forces mounted an assault in full view of watching journalists. Members of the unit managed to enter the building by abseiling down from the roof while stun grenades were detonated so that the descending forces could enter through the exploded windows. Although the operation did not go completely to plan – one of the soldiers got tangled in his rope and one of the building’s curtains caught fire, the SAS displayed an impressive ability to improvise under pressure and managed to free all but one of the captives. Five of the terrorists were killed during the operation, two of whom were using the hostages as human shields.
Operation Nimrod was a success, perhaps the most significant counter-terrorist operation since the 1976 Operation Entebbe in which Israeli forces managed to free 102 hostages whose plane had been hijacked by members of the German Revolutionary Cells and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-External Operations and brought to Uganda. Following the British operation, a report in The Times on 6th May 1980 noted that William Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, said that Britain’s handling of the crisis showed the absolute determination of the British government and people not to allow terrorist blackmail to succeed. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, joined Whitelaw in praising the SAS. In subsequent years there was a significant increase in applications to join the elite unit.
In addition to being an operation against a terrorist hostage taking scenario, Operation Nimrod was very much an effort to maintain the sanctity of the 1969 Vienna Convention which holds that the premises of a diplomatic mission is inviolable and that it is the duty of the host country to protect it from damage or intrusion.
Yet, despite Britain’s operation to ensure the safety of Iran’s embassy and nationals, putting the lives of its soldiers at risk, Iran neither reciprocated nor showed signs of appreciation. Throughout the embassy siege, the Islamic Republic dismissed it as part of a UK-US conspiracy, an elaborate plot by Washington and London to exact leverage against Iran for the ensuing US Embassy crisis in Tehran. Even after the furore when Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran’s powerless president, who was being marginalised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, extended a word of thanks, it was still widely disseminated by Iran that this was just another British and American conspiracy.
The siege in context
The 1980 Iranian Embassy crisis in London was directly related to the events surrounding the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Unable to quell the cross-societal uprisings against his brutal rule, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, went into self-exile in January 1979. As soon as he left the country Khomeini, then a popular Iranian religious leader with a hidden political agenda, returned and was greeted by millions upon arrival. The Shah’s caretaker government soon collapsed, and in April 1979 the country voted to establish an Islamic Republic.
By the end of the year Khomeini had become Supreme Leader and installed his own version of the Velayet-e Vaqih, a religious concept rooted in Shia Islam which suggests that under certain circumstances religious clerics should have guardianship over those who are incapable of protecting their own interests such as orphans, widows or those suffering from ill health. However, Khomeini’s version of the concept put the Islamic jurist at the centre of the political and moral lives of all citizens and made his version the concept the constitutional basis for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, Khomeini purged his enemies from institutions of state and quashed rival political groups. During this time, one of the most restless areas of Iran was in the southern province of Khuzestan. Strategically located by the Persian Gulf, the region is home to many of the country’s oil fields and a large Arab speaking population. After several months, the insurgency was crushed.
Iran as a threat to British interests
Initially, London hoped that Operation Nimrod had earned the UK goodwill with Iran, so much so that Thatcher wrote to Bani-Sadr to express her wish that that in an act of magnanimity, Khomeini would order the release of the American hostages adding that she hoped that ‘the comradeship sealed in blood over the past few days’ would lead to better relations between the UK and Iran. However, the plea for the release of the US hostages fell on deaf ears, as did her outreach for better relations.
This follows a well-trodden path, which had materialised even before the British operation. Iran had earlier floated the Vienna Convention when on 5th November 1979, just one day after the start of the US hostage crisis, a group of ‘armed intruders’ broke into the British Embassy in Tehran and for a period of as long as five hours took over the whole of the embassy building, rummaging through documents (which had been either destroyed or sent to London) and detaining embassy staff and their families.
Indeed, irrespective of Britain’s attempts to win Iran’s goodwill, Tehran has remained one of the UK’s major security challenges. In February 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa against the life of British novelist Salman Rushdie. In 2004, Iranian forces seized 8 Royal Navy Personnel who were forced to endure mock executions before they were released. Three years later, 15 Royal Navy personnel were detained for 13 days before finally freed. In November 2011, the British Embassy in Tehran was invaded by a 1,000 strong mob while Iran’s security personnel looked the other way as the Union Flag was set alight, documents were stolen, and diplomatic offices were vandalised. That the UK risked is soldiers to ensure the sanctity of Iran’s embassy had been all but forgotten.
More recently, in 2016, British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran and forced to endure the ignominy of a sham trial. She remains detained in inhumane conditions. In September 2018, Tehran took another British national hostage, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, who is also detained under spurious espionage charges and kept in solitary confinement. Last year, British flagged naval vessels were deliberately targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, necessitating the dispatch of the Royal Navy to escort ships through the Strait of Hormuz.
Indeed, regardless of Britain’s attempts to gain goodwill with the Islamic Republic, the UK was and still is considered to be the ‘Old Fox’ by the regime, whose opposition to the world’s democracies is ideological and has little to do with Britain’s actual conduct. Today, not only does Iran seek to acquire nuclear weapons, sponsor terrorist groups, and destabilise the Middle East, but continues to also directly target British citizens and interests.
The 1980 Iranian Embassy raid highlights that in the face of terrorism, hostage taking or attacks against British interests, the best course of action is for Britain to maintain its resolve and not shy away from escalation when necessary.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.