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Iranian Embassy Siege (Operation Nimrod)

30 April 1980 – 5 May 1980

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: June 28, 2021


Operation Nimrod was a raid conducted by the Special Air Service of the British Army in 1980 to rescue hostages held captive by a group of terrorists in the Iranian Embassy in London. The raid which happened in full view of the world would thrust the SAS to unprecedented prominence and mark a watershed moment in counterterrorism.

Key Takeaways: Iranian Embassy Siege
  • Operation Nimrod was a raid by the British SAS in 1980 to rescue a group of hostages held captive inside the Iranian Embassy in South Kensington, London.
  • The terrorists involved in the siege belonged to the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA) which demanded that Khuzestan be allowed to secede and merge with Iraq.
  • The siege began on the 30th of April as the leader of the DRFLA entered the Iranian embassy with 5 other gunmen and took 26 individuals’ captive.
  • The terrorists made multiple demands among which were the broadcast of the group’s grievances on British television, the release of prisoners in Iran and safe passage out of the UK.
  • During the siege, which would last for six days, the British authorities made various concessions and several hostages were released for a variety of reasons.
  • Amidst the negotiations, the SAS meticulously planned a rescue operation to be executed should the talks fail.
  • On the sixth day of the siege, the situation substantially deteriorated, and the terrorists killed one hostage as retaliation for an unmet demand.
  • Several hours later, Prime Minister Thatcher approved of an SAS raid, and the SAS stormed the embassy rescuing alive all but one hostage, and killing all but one terrorist.
  • The stunning success of the operation thrust the SAS to international prominence and bolstered support for Thatcher’s Conservative government.
  • Diplomatic relations between Argentina and Britain have since been restored and both nations remain committed to a peaceful solution to the islands’ ongoing sovereignty dispute.

Background

Among the many uprisings which were caused by the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s was the 1979 Khuzestan insurgency. Khuzestan’s mostly Arab population demanded autonomy and began a revolt in April 1979.

The Iranian security forces responded with deadly attacks and wide-scale arrests. Several members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), a militant group of Iranian Arabs committed to Khuzestan’s secession from Iran and merging with Iraq, thus, would decide to retaliate by attacking the Iranian Embassy in London.

On the 31st of March 1980, Oan Ali Mohammed, the leader of the DRFLA, arrived in London along with 3 other members of the group. All of them had used Iraqi passports. They would subsequently rent a flat in Earl’s Court, West London.

Over the ensuing days, more men would join them in the flat. The 27-year-old Oan as well as his second-in-command had long been advocates of the Khuzestani cause and even been supposedly tortured by SAVAK, the Iranian secret police under the Shah.

Siege and Hostage Taking

Day One (30 April 1980)

On Wednesday, the 30th of April 1980, Oan and his men would leave their flat around 9.30am (British Summer Time) after informing their landlord that they no longer needed the place, and that they would return to Iraq after spending a week in Bristol.

Before arriving outside the Iranian Embassy shortly before 11.30am, Oan and five of his men would collect their ammunition, firearms and hand grenades. The predominantly Soviet-made weapons were probably smuggled into the U.K. in an Iraqi diplomatic bag.

It was quite likely that the attackers were also trained by the Iraqi government to carry out subversive action against Iran. After arriving around 11.30am outside the building on Princes Gate, South Kensington, the 6 heavily armed men of the DRFLA stormed the Iranian Embassy, and soon overpowered Trevor Lock, a Police Constable of the Diplomatic Protection Group(DPG) of the Metropolitan Police.

Lock had managed to send a panic alert via his radio just in time. He also had a concealed revolver under his coat. The terrorist who frisked Lock could not find it and the revolver would remain in Lock’s possession throughout the siege.

Although most of the individuals in the embassy were captured, three were able to escape. One climbed over a parapet on the first floor to the adjoining Ethiopian Embassy while two managed to exit via a window on the ground-floor.

But 26 others, most of whom were Iranian nationals, were taken as hostages into a room on the second floor. Among the hostages were Ronald Morris, a British member of the embassy staff as well as Simeon Harris and Chris Cramer, two employees of the BBC who had come to procure visas to go to Iran.

The Police arrived immediately, and some officers moved to surround the site. However, when one of the terrorists threatened from a window to open fire, they retreated. Soon, Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Dellow arrived, took over the command of the operation, and set-up a temporary headquarters in his car. Dellow would coordinate the deployment of officers with surveillance equipment and the Metropolitan Police’s marksmen.

Soon, via a field telephone passed through an embassy window, Police negotiators established contact with the terrorist group. At 3.15pm, Oan who was heading the DRFLA team, issued the first demand. He threatened to blow up the embassy and kill the hostages if 91 Arabs imprisoned in Khuzestan were not released by noon on the 1st of May.

Approximately an hour later, however, the gunmen would release Frieda Mozaffarian, an ailing woman, after the other hostages beguiled Oan into thinking that she was pregnant. In the meantime, swarms of journalists and agitated Iranian protestors had gathered outside the embassy.

Police officers would be dispatched to contain the protestors who, on a few occasions, would resort to violence. Soon after the crisis had erupted, the emergency government committee, COBRA (The Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms), which comprised civil servants, ministers and expert advisers had been assembled under Home Secretary William Whitelaw.

The Iranian regime had accused the American and British governments of aiding the assault as retaliation for the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Given the want of cooperation from the Iranian regime, Margaret Thatcher would decide that the situation at the embassy would be dealt with according to British law.

Day Two (1 May 1980)

The meetings of the British government officials would last through the night into the 1st of May. Meanwhile, two SAS teams from B Squadron would arrive in Regent’s Park Barracks, and one of the teams would move into the building adjoining the embassy at approximately 3.30am.

In this building, which was generally occupied by the Royal College of General Practitioners, the SAS operatives would be briefed on the ‘immediate action’ plan of Lieutenant- Colonel Michael Rose, the commander of 22 SAS.

This emergency plan would guide the operation should the SAS be called upon to enter the building prior to constructing a more sophisticated strategy. The SAS operatives would also be equipped with stun grenades, CS gas, explosives, submachine guns and hi-power pistols.

In the meantime, Oan, early in the morning, with the help of one of the hostages, would call the BBC’s news desk. During the call, Oan identified his group and indicated that the gunmen would not harm the non-Iranian hostages.

Moreover, four of the non-Arab hostages had decided that one of them must get out. Thus, the BBC employee, Chris Cramer, would wake up and feign to be seriously sick. After he had successfully exaggerated the symptoms of an existing condition, Cramer was released at 11.15am.

Police officers would accompany him to the hospital, striving to gather as much information as possible during the process. The police concluded based on the information they had gathered that the terrorists were not capable of blowing up the embassy as they had earlier threatened to do.

As the previously set deadline of noon on the 1st of May approached, the police managed to convince Oan on a new deadline of 2pm. The police permitted the deadline to pass. However, there was no violent reaction from the terrorists.

In the meantime, Oan changed his demands. He demanded that a statement of the DRFLA’s grievances be broadcast on British media and that the ambassadors of 3 Arab nations negotiate safe passage out of the U.K. for the group following the broadcast.

Several hours later, around 8pm, Oan was agitated by a noise stemming from the adjoining Ethiopian Embassy. Police Constable Lock would convince Oan that this was the sound of mice. In reality however, the noise stemmed from the drilling of holes in the wall by technicians to install listening devices.

In order to cover up this sound, COBRA instructed British Gas to drill in a close-by road, ostensibly to fix a gas main. This upset the terrorists and subsequently, the British Airport Authority would be instructed to ask oncoming aircraft to fly at low altitudes over the embassy.

Day Three (2 May 1980)

On the 2nd of May, at 9.30am, Oan demanded access to the telex system. This had been disabled earlier by the police. When the police refused his request, Oan brought the Iranian cultural attaché before a window and held him at gunpoint, threatening to kill him.

Then Oan demanded to talk to someone from the BBC who was acquainted with Harris. The police gladly complied by producing Harris’s supervisor, Tony Crabb, the managing editor of BBC TV News. Oan made his demands known to Crabb who remained outside the building.

The Arab ambassadors would have to negotiate the group’s safe passage out of the country and the BBC would have to broadcast a statement of the hostage-takers’ grievances. The BBC broadcast the DRFLA’s statement that evening, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contacted the embassies of Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, Jordan and Algeria.

While the Jordanian ambassador immediately refused, the others needed time. In the meantime, the caretaker of the embassy was located and taken to the headquarters to inform the SAS of the embassy’s interior.

The caretaker revealed that the widows of the first and ground floors were secured with armored glass and that the entrance was supported by a steel door. Plans to enter the embassy by thrashing the ground floor widows and the front door were immediately discarded.

Day Four (3 May 1980)

Oan was exceedingly displeased by what he perceived to be an incorrect portrayal of his demands the previous day. Early in the morning he called the police and threatened to kill a hostage if BBC’s Tony Crabb were not brought to the embassy.

Oan also demanded that he be allowed to talk to an Arab ambassador. When the police negotiator told him that talks were underway, Oan accused the British authorities of deceiving him and informed that the British hostages would be held till the end.

To the frustration of Oan as well as Harris, BBC’s Tony Crabb would not arrive until 3.30pm. After he arrived, Oan produced a new statement to be broadcast on BBC news and agreed to release two hostages. Subsequently, the terrorists released Hiyech Kanji, a pregnant woman, and Ali-Guil Ghanzafar, a Pakistani tourist whose loud snoring had irritated everyone.

Close to midnight that day, an SAS team surveyed the embassy’s roof and tied ropes to the chimneys to permit soldiers to abseil down if needed. They also found a skylight and unlocked it so it could be a potential access point.

Day Five (4 May 1980)

On the 4th of May, talks between the Foreign Office and the Arab diplomats would end in a stalemate. The diplomats were convinced that providing gunmen safe passage out of the United Kingdom was necessary for a peaceful outcome.

However, the British government steadfastly opposed safe passage. In the meantime, Mustpha Karkhouti, a Syrian journalist who was held hostage, became increasingly sick and would be released.

Meanwhile, Major Jector Gullan, Lieutenant-Colonel Rose and Brigadier Peter de la Billere were working diligently behind the scenes and preparing for a potential SAS assault.

Day Six (5 May 1980)

The 5th of May began badly. Oan had become increasingly suspicious and believed that the authorities were up to some devious plan. He woke Police Constable Lock up early in the morning, and asked him to search for any intruders in the building.

Later, Lock was directed to a bulge on a wall which had resulted from the drilling to install listening devices. Lock tried to convince Oan that the authorities would not storm the building. Oan would soon move the male hostages to a new room.

Tension began to rise, and Oan informed the police at 1.00pm that he would kill a hostage unless they allowed him to talk to an Arab ambassador by 1.45pm. At exactly 1.45pm the embassy’s chief press officer Abbas Lavasani was shot and murdered.

Lavasani, an ardent advocate of the Iranian Revolution, had repeatedly drawn his captors’ ire and had stated that if they wanted to kill a hostage, he wanted to be the first to be killed. Home Secretary William Whitelaw immediately arrived at the scene after the gunshots were heard. He met with Brigadier de la Billiere who informed him that, of the hostages, up to 40 percent could be killed in a potential raid.

Following deliberations with the SAS, Whitelaw instructed the SAS to stay prepared for an assault on short notice. Around 6.30pm, the police negotiators managed to get Regent’s Park Mosque’s imam to speak to the terrorists.

During the conversation between the imam and Oan, three more gunshots were heard. Oan indicated that a hostage had been killed (later however, it would be revealed that only Lavasani had been killed by this point). Oan also announced that the remaining hostages would be killed in 30 minutes if his demands were not met.

A little later, Abbas Lavasani’s body was thrown out of the front door. After the dead body was recovered, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police requested permission from Whitelaw, according to the provision of MACA (Military Aid to Civil Authorities), to pass control of the operation to the British Army.

With the approval of Prime Minister Thatcher, the request was immediately granted, and the operation was taken over at 7.07pm by Lieutenant-Colonel Rose. In the meantime, the police negotiators began distracting Oan by offering him concessions in order to buy time for the inevitable SAS assault and to prevent Oan from killing more hostages.

The SAS Storms the Embassy

At 7.23pm, Blue Team and Red Team, the 2 SAS teams on the site, were ordered to launch their simultaneous attacks under the codename Operation Nimrod. 4 operatives from Red Team abseiled down the rear of the building from the roof while 4 more operatives managed to lower a stun grenade through the skylight.

The stun grenade’s detonation was planned to coincide with the detonation on the second-floor windows by the abseiling team. However, the abseiling did not go as planned. One of the operatives got entangled in his rope.

Moreover, in an effort to help him, another operative accidently smashed a window. The noise alerted Oan who was on the phone on the first floor, talking with the police negotiators. Oan broke the conversation and proceeded to examine the noise.

The element of surprise was compromised, and every second delayed now could mean the massacring of the hostages. The SAS operatives could not detonate some of the explosives for fear of hurting the stranded soldier still entangled in his rope.

Nonetheless, stun grenades had set the curtains ablaze. The fire began to severely burn the entangled operative. Eventually, however, the soldiers on the roof cut the rope and the burnt operative fell down 10 feet onto the floor of the balcony. Despite his third-degree burns, the wounded man would soon enter the building to join the fight alongside his fellow SAS soldiers who had, by now, entered the building.

Blue Team set off explosives on a first-floor window. The detonation compelled Harris who had just come into the room to take cover. Subsequently, in view of all the journalists in front of the embassy, Harris, following an order from an SAS trooper would make his famous escape over the parapet of the balcony.

Operation NIMROD on May 5, 1980

Sim Harris making his escape across the first-floor balcony, as ordered by the masked SAS operator (far right) during Operation NIMROD on May 5, 1980 (Photo: Wiki)

Meanwhile Constable Lock charged at Oan and tackled him to keep him from assaulting the SAS troopers. Oan, who was still armed, was soon afterwards, shot dead by one of the approaching operatives. As the action was going on, more SAS soldiers would break into the embassy via the back door and clear off the cellar and ground floor.

Moreover, the terrorists opened fire at the hostages, murdering Ali Akbar Samadzadeh, a temporary employee at the embassy, and injuring two others. Soon however, the SAS found the captives and started evacuating them. The operatives formed a line along the staircase and shoved the hostages out. It seemed that there were more hostages than expected.

Two terrorists had hidden themselves among the captives. One of them, with a grenade in hand was readily identified. The operatives couldn’t initially shoot him for fear of hitting a fellow SAS soldier. However, one of the operatives eventually hit the terrorist hard with his MP5, thrusting him to the ground, and subsequently, about two magazines were unleashed by two other operatives on the terrorist who was instantly killed.

The salvaged captives as well as the other terrorist who had hidden himself among them were thrust onto the embassy’s garden with plastic handcuffs. They were restrained so the terrorist could be identified. Soon Harris identified the terrorist who was apprehended by the SAS.

Afterglow

After nearly 17 minutes, the raid was successfully completed with the help of approximately 30 SAS operatives. Prime Minister Thatcher arrived at the barracks with her husband to congratulate and praise the heroism of the SAS soldiers.

There had been a statistical probability of nearly 40% of the hostages dying in the assault. However, only one captive was murdered during the raid while 5 of the 6 terrorists were killed. SAS operative Tommy Goodyear would receive the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for shooting a terrorist apparently preparing to throw a grenade at the hostages.

Moreover, Police Constable Trevor Lock was awarded the George Medal, the UK’s second-highest civil honor. He was also recognized with the Freedom of the City of London. Moreover, the SAS operative who was entangled in the rope and suffered serious burns, would eventually make a complete recovery.

The Iranian regime responded by declaring the two killed hostages as martyrs, and thanking the British government for the successful raid to end the siege. Meanwhile, the surviving terrorist Nejad was arrested and sentenced to prison for life.

However, in 2005 Nejad became eligible for parole and was subsequently released. The British authorities decided not to return him to Iran because this would have likely meant torture or death for him. Nejad lives in London today under another identity.

Controversy

Following the assault, a police investigation was conducted to examine the deaths of the terrorists as well as the hostages. The weapons which the SAS used were assessed, and the soldiers were interviewed concerning the raid.

A controversy arose concerning the killing of two terrorists in the room wherein the male hostages were kept. The hostages reported that they had convinced the terrorists to surrender, and video footage seemed to show them casting their weapons out the window and waving a white flag.

According to the hostages’ reports, during the raid, the SAS soldiers had demanded to know who the terrorists were, and then, had thrust them against the wall and shot them. The SAS operatives however, explained that they believed that the terrorists had been reaching out for weapons before they were killed.

This was a probable account since one of the gunmen who hid himself among the hostages was still carrying a hand grenade with him. Following the examination, the jury declared that the killings of the two terrorists were justifiable homicide, and the SAS operatives were cleared of any culpability.

Impact of the Operation

Prior to the Iranian embassy siege, London had been a theatre for terrorist incidents and Middle Eastern conflicts.

However, Operation Nimrod would mark an end to this trend. A sense of national pride pervaded Britain, and Prime Minister Thatcher was congratulated by many world leaders for the raid’s success.

The operation also vindicated the SAS in the eyes of those who were seeking its disbandment, and were calling its funding a waste. The clandestine nature of its operations had kept the SAS in obscurity since WWII.

However, Operation Nimrod would thrust the SAS to the spotlight and vastly increase its popularity. Following the operation, applications to join the regiment skyrocketed while friendly countries sought after its expertise and advice in order to counter similar terrorist attacks.

Finally, the end of the siege exemplified the British policy of refusing the demands of terrorists and solidified the credibility of the Conservative government under Thatcher’s leadership.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Iranian Embassy Siege (Operation Nimrod)." World History Blog, June 28, 2021. https://www.worldhistoryblog.com/Iranian_Embassy_siege.html.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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