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Action in London, felt in Tehran

Hooded SAS officers end the siege at the Iranian embassy in London in 1980

In 1979 and in 1980, I had been inside the Iranian embassy in London’s Knightsbridge on several occasions to try and get visas for Tehran.

This was a long drawn out affair, partly because the embassy officials liked to make the process as protracted as possible, and partly because they liked to chat to journalists over endless cups of tea. But because I was Indian, they always did give me a journalistic visa.

One of the press officers I dealt with was a young man called Abbas Lavasani.

I happened to be in Tehran on April 30, 1980, (covering the long-drawn-out hostage crisis at the American embassy) when I heard the Iranian embassy in London had been stormed by Arab gunmen. The latter wanted their compatriots released from prisons in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini’s government was in no mood to give in. The gunmen executed one of their hostages and threw his body out of the building which by this time was surrounded by armed police.

I was shocked to learn the identity of the hostage: Abbas Lavasani who had given me my visa.

Another press officer, Hamid Houshanghi, who had been in London at the time but was now in Tehran and had become a friend, lamented: “I wish I, too, had been martyred.”

Back in London, TV cameras and reporters were being kept well away from the building so that there could be no live coverage of the comings and goings at the embassy (this is a lesson that should have been learnt in Mumbai in 2008).

There was absolutely no chance that Margaret Thatcher would allow the gunmen to leave. The moment Lavasani was killed, she gave the order for the SAS to go in.

The Special Air Services or SAS is an elite unit of the army and used as a weapon of last resort. Its soldiers, highly trained, are never identified and the SAS tries to live up to its motto — “Who Dares Wins”.

TV cameras filmed but did not broadcast footage of SAS soldiers being dropped by helicopter (as in Mumbai) and abseiling down the side of the embassy, smashing the windows and using stun grenades to achieve shock and awe.

About 30-35 SAS soldiers were involved and the rescue operation was over in 17 minutes. All but one of the terrorists were shot dead (some were executed) — it was a textbook operation. A grateful Thatcher went to the SAS headquarters in Hereford — it has now moved to Credenhill in Herefordshire — to give her personal thanks. The media treated the SAS like heroes. Later, their exploits that night were turned into a TV drama and a movie.

On the evening that siege ended, I was sent a personal message by the then Iranian President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, whom I had met earlier on assignment. Although relations between Britain and Iran could scarcely be worse, the moderate President said he wanted to thank Britain for ending the siege.

A couple of years later when I happened to be covering the Falklands War from the Argentine side, based in Buenos Aires, I heard the SAS operatives had been dropped into Chile and were making their way into Argentina with a mission to sabotage enemy shipping and fighter jets. The tales were probably true.

Thus, in 1984, when Thatcher decided she would help Indira Gandhi to deal with “extremists”, it would have been the most natural reaction of the British Prime Minister to send for the SAS. If the reports are correct, an officer, presumably someone very senior, was sent to India. It is not known what his advice was, though the British are generally not trigger-happy and prefer playing a long game. But it is also a part of British policy never to give in to the demands of hostage takers or terrorists.

Since Bluestar, the SAS has been deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently in Libya. It has also been routinely used in Northern Ireland.

According to Sunday Times, London, (which had hinted of an SAS connection in Bluestar), as of March 2010, the UK Special Forces had suffered 12 killed and 70 seriously injured in Afghanistan and seven killed and 30 seriously injured in Iraq. Several have been killed in Northern Ireland, sometimes brutally by the IRA.

Even today, the SAS likes to retain its air of mystery and invincibility. And Indira Gandhi is by no means the only foreign leader to have accepted advice or assistance from the SAS.