Sunday, January 7, 2018

5 Minutes of History: The Iranian Embassy Siege, 1980

This item started off as a quotes item (the quotes appear later in this post) but, like Topsy, it just growed.  It is therefore rebirthed as 5 Minutes of History.  Hopefully you will find it entertaining.


Yesterday Kate and I watched 6 Days on iTunes (it skipped a cinema release), the 2017 British-New Zealand biographical action film that is a dramatisation of the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London. If you’re expecting an action film, this won’t be your cup of tea; if you want the background story and historical aspect, you will probably enjoy it.

My purpose in telling you of this is to post two quotes, neither of which comes from the movie. I should mention at this point that quotes posted by me do not necessarily reflect my opinions, they are selected on the basis of interest.

When Kate and I were looking at the list of new release films on iTunes, we saw the listing for 6 Days, which touched off a discussion about those events. 


For those too young to remember, in 1980 a group of six armed men stormed the Iranian embassy in South Kensington, London. The gunmen, members of an Iranian Arab group campaigning for Arab national sovereignty in the southern Iranian region of Khuzestan Province, took 26 people hostage, mostly embassy staff, but also several British visitors as well as an English police officer who had been guarding the embassy. They demanded the release of Arab prisoners from prisons in Khuzestan and their own safe passage out of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stuck by her policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists and a siege ensued. Over the following days, police negotiators secured the release of five hostages in exchange for minor concessions, such as the broadcasting of the hostage-takers' demands on British television. On the sixth day the gunmen, increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in meeting their demands, killed one of the hostages and threw his body out of the embassy. As a result, the government ordered the Special Air Service (SAS), a special forces regiment of the British Army, to conduct an assault—Operation Nimrod—to rescue the remaining hostages. Shortly afterwards, SAS soldiers abseiled from the roof of the building and forced entry through the windows. During the 17-minute raid, they rescued all but one of the remaining hostages, and killed five of the six hostage-takers. The SAS raid was broadcast live at peak time on a bank holiday Monday evening and was viewed by millions of people, mostly in the UK, making it a defining moment in British history.

Special forces storm the Iranian embassy

An SAS trooper had become tangled in his abseiling gear and was hanging halfway down the wall. Stun grenades that had been lobbed in through smashed windows below him had set curtains alight and the flames were burning him.  His colleagues managed to cut him free.


Before watching the film, Kate and I watched a doco on youTube where the actual participants spoke about those events. There is a link below to a shorter version.


Following the successful raid on the embassy, the SAS retired to Regents Park Barracks for a debrief and a beer. A TV is on nearby. According to John McAleese, one of the SAS leaders of the raid:
“Then Maggie (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) just appeared. Maggie, her husband and one of the bosses. . . suddenly it’s going through the start of it on the telly, a newsflash thing, you know . . . I see me, I’m trying to watch this and there’s this head right in front of me, I’m a short arse, and I think ‘Oh, fuck that’, I didn’t know whose head it was, it was Maggie, and I said ‘Move your fucking head!’, I did, I actually swore, you know, and she . . (mimics her turning around and moving her head to the side) . . . said ‘Oops, sorry’, and she just moved, didn’t bat an eyelid. She just moved and she was actually sitting there and watching it as well."

Margaret Thatcher and three SAS personnel after the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in London, May 1980

"He had a big grin on his face and said, 'You let one of the bastards live.' We failed in that respect."
“Tom", one of the SAS soldiers present at the above meeting at the Regents Park Barracks, commenting on what was said to him by Denis Thatcher, husband of the PM.

Denis and Margaret Thatcher

Further items and information:
  • On Day 4 of the siege, the terrorists released 2 hostages after their statement had been read out on the BBC. The hostages decided amongst themselves that the two to be released would be Hiyech Kanji and Ali-Guil Ghanzafar, the former as she was pregnant and the latter because his loud snoring kept the other hostages awake at night and irritated the terrorists.
  • SAS attempts to drill into the walls from the embassy next door caused the terrorists to become dangerously agitated by hearing the noise. A quick thinking hostage in the embassy managed to convince the terrorists that the noise was just mice. To cover the further noise, they had road works carried out but the terrorists soon became suspicious of this noise too, because apparently even they knew that road workers actually doing their jobs for 9 hours without a break didn’t make sense. The next plan was better: they had the planes from a nearby airport fly a little lower. The louder noise enabled the SAS to safely drill their holes and plant their listening devices.
  • The surviving gunmen, Fowzi Nejad, was sentenced to life imprisonment and was paroled in 2008. The government deemed that he was no longer a threat to society and accepted that he would be executed or tortured, if deported to Iran, hence under the Human Rights Act 1998 he remains in England, living in Peckham, South London on benefits, having assumed another identity. 
Some have said that the allegations were false and that he did not own a computer.
  • One of the main SAS participants in ending the siege, Robin Horsfall, 60, has slammed the film 6 Days. “I was just so angry watching the film because it was all wrong. It was so bad I had to walk away at one point. From the supposed training missions to the actual rescue everything in the film is wrong. Those watching it would think there were just eight people taking part. But there were five teams of eight men who stormed the embassy but they are just left out of the film. It is laughable and an insult to the memory of all those who took part.”

Robin Horsfall, pictured above as a young man and now with his medals
  • John McAleese took part in the raid and was seen on live television placing an explosive charge on the front first floor balcony of the Iranian Embassy prior to the assault on 5 May 1980. He later took part in the Falklands War in 1982, and was awarded the Military Medal in 1988 for service in Northern Ireland. He also served as a bodyguard for three British PrimeMministers. He was honourably discharged from the British Army on 8 February 1992 in the rank of staff sergeant. After that, he worked as a security consultant in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was also an airsoft instructor. His 29 year old son was killed on active duty in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb. For the last year of his life, McAleese had been refusing to return to the UK to answer allegations that he had downloaded child pornography. He had failed to answer bail and had returned to Greece, where he had been living, when he passed away from a heart attack in 2011. 
  • The Prime Minister gave orders for the SAS not to use smoke screens, so as to not obscure TV cameras as the group swung through Embassy windows. Her intention was to make clear how Britain dealt with terrorists.
  • Following the siege, Iran and its insurers demanded that the British Government fund the cost of repairs to the Embassy for the damage caused by the SAS. For 2 years the Government refused, the PM being especially angry in that at the time the Ayatollah's brutal regime was still holding 52 US hostages and innocent Britons in an embassy in Tehran.  Secret documents released in 2016 have revealed how she relented after the insurance wrangle threatened to expose SAS operations and allow soldiers to be sued for doing their duty. The Government ended up paying £2m and the Iranian embassy reopened in 1993, in exchange for Iran repairing the British Embassy damaged in Tehran during the Revolution. (The cost to Iran was only £250,000 and the Tehran compound was damaged again when it was attacked by frenzied mob who tore down the Union Jack in 2011.)

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