In April of 1980, six men comprised of a minority Arab population from southern Iran broke into Iran’s London embassy and took its employees and visitors hostage, and demanded the release of 91 political prisoners currently being held in Iranian jails.
The background of this messy endeavor, according to Robert Garofalo’s documentary, began in Iraq, who lent a sympathetic ear and supported their venture purely to embarrass and destabilize Iran’s government, since the two countries were on the verge of war (which kicked into gear months later in September).
The bait was simple for a group of earnest rebels: Iraq provided the intelligence and return ticket flight to London, and the whole event would be over within 24 hours- a perfect surgical siege that would end with media attention, validation, and celebrations.
Once the group took over the embassy, however, they didn’t really know where to begin. Moreover, much to the shock of the British hostages, their captors were unfamiliar with Margaret Thatcher’s heavy stand against terrorism; whether due to a deliberate withholding on the part of their Iraqi handler or all-around ineptitude, none of the terrorists knew of two recent events that demonstrated Britain’s no-nonsense attitude – the Spaghetti House siege in September of 1975 (which ended peacefully), and the Balkan Street Siege.
It took a while before demands were finally sent out to the police. A few hostages were released in good faith, heated food was offered via long poles through ground-level windows, communications between the police and the articulate terrorist leader were ongoing, and the media remained camped out in front, capturing the embassy drama as well as the rival street protests from pro-Iranian supporters, and local Brits unhappy with foreign politics suddenly exploding on their city streets.
Garofalo realized he could craft a steady drama using a wealth of archival media and declassified film and still footage, and the film takes on a particularly potent edge because of the recollections by a British special forces officer involved in the rescue (billed as Soldier 1); BBC soundman Sim Harris, who was at the embassy for an interview; and BBC World journalist Mustapha Karkouti, who was able to converse with the terrorists in English and Arabic.
Although a gripping film, what’s rather surreal are the mini-dramas recalled by Karkouti and Harris, such as the internecine conflicts among the hostages, their captors, and the outside world. Among the hostages were a panic-stricken woman who was allowed to leave, Harris’ sick colleague, a pregnant woman, Iranian embassy staff that were kept separate and poorly regarded by the terrorists, and a Pakistani-American who kept insisting he be allowed to leave to catch a prepaid plane flight.
There was also a remote telephone that remained functional for a short period, with which the hostages secretly called their loved ones. Harris, in turn, called the BBC and alerted them of the newsworthy drama, whereas the embassy’s Charge d’Affaire was told by his superiors in Tehran that the group was virtually on their own, and any lost lives would be regarded as national martyrs. (Archival news footage of Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh is equally chilling for his complete lack of concern for the hostages, and an almost disinterest in the whole event.)
As the terrorists began to realize their planned event was going nowhere, the group started to pine for a way out, but as the stress between captors and hostages grew more intense, an Iranian hostage was shot, and the SAS – Britain’s elite special forces team – was put in charge. In the end, all but one hostages were saved, and one terrorist was arrested and thrown into jail.
Garofalo expertly slows down the tally of events so as to present angles from his three interview subjects, which in turn are supported by archival news footage of the communications between hostages, terrorists, and the police; and the SAS’s storming of the embassy, with explosive charges, smoke bombs, and hostages popping out through windows.
Within its 90 min. running time, the doc delivers all the meat of a dramatic suspense film, and the three extended interviews in the Extras section offer further details.
Solider 1, for example, offers a bit of his own history with the SAS, as well as the event being the first time the tactical team was seen by the media and general public. Original plans had included use of a smoke screen in front of the embassy to shield their actions from the public, but Thatcher wanted to show the world how Britain would handle terror on home soil. The decision to show all, perhaps amusingly, resulted in special forces from allied governments dropping by for learning sessions on how to improve their own forces using a detailed breakdown of how the siege came to a close. Additionally, Soldier 1 describes the unique court proceedings, which were mandatory because the takedown was in public view, and there were deaths.
Harris, in turn, describes the post-siege period, of being ‘in captivity’ by the police for an additional 24 hours before he was free to be with his wife and file a report with the BBC; the near-yearly queries Harris receives from students, journalists, and filmmakers of the event; and speculations on what may have happened had the SAS not stormed the building.
Karkouti describes his debriefing after his own release during the crisis; post-event trauma; and receiving letters from the lone terrorist, Fowzi Nejad, then in jail, who apologized for the crisis and sought support for an early release. (In 2008, Karkouti wrote about the man’s release HERE.).
The event was dramatized in the 1982 film Who Dares Wins, based on James Follet’s book, and released in North America as The Final Option.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan