The Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980

After six tense days of waiting, it took just 15 minutes on 5 May 1980 for the British Special Air Service – aka the SAS – to end the Iranian Embassy siege in a hail of bullets and explosions.

The Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980 © Getty Images

The crisis began on 30 April 1980, when six armed men stormed the embassy on Princes Gate, London, and took 26 prisoners.

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The Iranian gunmen – opponents of their country’s new regime under religious leader Ayatollah Kholmeini – demanded 91 political prisoners to be released or they would blow up the building.

That same day, the SAS was deployed. As meetings of the government’s emergency committee, COBRA, and ineffective negotiations with the terrorists were carried out, the SAS made schematics of the embassy in preparation for a raid.

Information was gathered from surveillance equipment that had been installed by drilling into the walls. To cover the noise, it was arranged for British Gas to drill at the same time in nearby roads.

Hostage Sim Harris is the first out as he clambers over the balcony to safety, as a fire breaks out in the embassy © Getty Images
Hostage Sim Harris is the first out as he clambers over the balcony to safety, as a fire breaks out in the embassy © Getty Images

On the sixth day – 5 May – shots were heard before the body of a hostage, Iranian Abbas Lavasani, was dumped on the front porch.

Operation Nimrod, to capture the embassy, began less than an hour later. Across two SAS teams, more than 30 black-clad commandos abseiled from the roof, or broke through the windows using grenades and a sledgehammer.

Explosions and gunfire echoed down the street, while millions watched on television. A quarter of an hour later, five terrorists were dead, the sixth had been arrested and 19 hostages were safe. One died after being shot in the chaos by a terrorist.

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It was a rousing success. Before the siege, the SAS came close to being disbanded, but the widespread television coverage of their raid led to a massive rise in applicants for the special forces unit. Yet the siege was further proof of the dangers faced from international terrorism.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed.