The Untold Story Behind the Seizure of the Iranian Embassy in London
In early 1979, political activists in Mohammareh, located in the region of Ahwaz, coordinated with activists across the region to establish political organisations aimed at effectively mobilising Ahwazi Arabs to carry out peaceful activities and advocate for the political, cultural, economic, and social rights of the Ahwazi Arab nation.
This organisation called the “Arab People’s Political organisation”, was just one of few organisations that rose at the time to further the Arab people’s struggle for self-determination in Iran.
Ahwazi demands laid out in the memorandum of Arab People’s Political organisation that their response was death were as follow:
- Legal recognition of Ahwazi Arab nationality, to be acknowledged and protected under the new Iranian constitution.
- The formation of a local committee to administer the affairs of the Ahwazi region as an autonomous, broadly independent territory.
3.Recognition of Arabic as the official language in Ahwaz, to be taught at school and further education level and the foundation of schools and universities for this purpose, with Arab students to be granted the opportunity of overseas scholarships.
4.A guarantee of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the freedom to establish Arabic newspapers and broadcast media, and an end to the draconian censorship policies of the Shah’s regime.
- Abolition of discriminatory policies towards Ahwazis in civil service recruitment.
- The allocation of sufficient funds from the oil and gas revenues from Ahwazi lands to help in development of the Ahwazi region.
- The restoration and recognition of the Ahwazi people’s right to their Arab identity, i.e. through reintroducing the Arabic names of towns, cities, villages and geographic features rather than the Farsi names conferred under the Shahs’ rule.
8.Revisions and reforms to the previous regime’s agricultural legislation in order to allow land to be redistributed in a fair and equitable way among Ahwazi farmers, with their ownership rights to be taken into consideration.
After several months of organising activities by Ahwazis, Iranian politician Ahmad Madani (commander of the Iranian Navy, governor of the Al-Ahwaz which is known as Khuzestan province (, and candidate of the first Iranian presidential election) stated publicly that the establishment of such Ahwazi organisations is a threat. Consequently, he called upon his supporters and including nationalist Persian settlers to established military units with the purpose of attacking the Arab people and dismantle the Ahwazi Arab movement.
To push forward these plans, Ahmad Madani appointed Ali Jahan Ara as head of a military unit tasked with attacking any Arab organisations engaged in civil, cultural, and political activities. Ali Jahan Ara recruited Persian settlers and stockpiled a variety of weapons in order to carry out brutal assaults sanctioned by Madani. On May 30, 1979, Ali Jahan Ara and his forces stormed Mohammareh assemblages of Ahwazi citizens and targeted for assassination local leaders of Arab organisations. Within five days, around 500 Arabs were killed. The massacre culminated with Ali Jahan Ara’s forces deploying helicopters to rain down rockets upon Arab residential neighbourhood.
This bloody day called the “massacre of the Arab people of Mohammareh” or “Black Wednesday” is commemorated by Ahwazi Arabs every year in honour of those slain. The massacre had far reaching consequences which impacted the Iran-Iraq war. Following the Mohammareh massacre, the rights of the Arab people continued to be repressed and were victim to assassinations and summary executions. Arab families were displaced and forced to leave the country due to security concerns. Many Arab families lost their loved ones in this incident and its aftermath. A multitude of Arab political prisoners in Mohammareh, Abadan, Falahiyeh, Ahwaz and other cities were executed without fair trial in the dungeons the Islamic Republic.
Less than a year after the massacre of Mohammareh, at 11:30 am on 30 April 1980, six young Arab men armed with guns stormed the Iranian embassy in London and held 26 people hostage – 18 members of the Iranian embassy and 8 visitors. The Special Air Service (SAS) unit of the British Army and local security forces initiated negotiations with the hostage takers who turned out to be from the Ahwaz region. The hostage-takers claimed that they carry out this operation in retaliatory protest of the brutal massacre that was carried out in Mohammareh the year before.
The six young Ahwazi men (named Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi, Jassem Alwan, Shaye Hamed AL-Sahar, Abbas Meysam, Makki Hannon, and Fowzi Rafaf) identified themselves as supporters of the “martyr Mohi-ud-Din Al Naser” – one of the iconic Ahwazi leaders who established the “Arabistan Front for the liberation of Ahwaz” and was arrested and executed by the previous Pahlavi regime. In order to secure the safe release of the hostages, the group demanded the release of 90 Ahwazi Arab political prisoners from facilities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They gave 24 hours for their demands to be fulfilled, otherwise, they threatened they might attempt to kill the hostages. The provisional Iranian government headed by Mehdi Bazargan (with Khomeini as its leader) did not accept the group’s demands and stated that it did not care if all members of the embassy were killed because they would be considered martyrs.
As a sign of goodwill, the group set free six men and women seized in the embassy. Moreover, even though the 24-hour deadline had passed, none of the hostages were killed. It was clear that the group of hostage takers only wanted to attract international attention to the previous year’s massacre of and to secure the release of political prisoners. Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi (also known as “Saleem”), the group’s leader and spokesperson, had told the BBC via phone that “we did it [the operation] to the British here to tell the world we want the Iranian government to admit to the existence of the Arab population in the Arabistan/Ahwaz. We demand the release of Arab political prisoners and to stop executions of Arabs.”
The Iranian regime continued to refuse to negotiate with the hostage-takers. As tensions began to rise, an incident between group leader Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi and a hostage named Abbas Lavassani brought the situation to a critical level.
Tawfiq Ibrahim saw a poster on the wall of the press office in the embassy and addressed Lavassani: ‘In this poster, I see Turks, Lors, Baluchis, Persians, Turkmen, and Kurds – all dressed in their traditional garb and showing their national identities with pride. But where are the Arabs? Do the Arab people not exist in Iran, or does your government insist on denying their existence?’ Lavassani, who was well known for his support of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, taunted his captors and continued to do so for days.
After five days of futile negotiations, Tawfiq Ibrahim and his cohort found that neither Iran nor Britain would meet their demands to release the Arab political prisoners in Iran. Instead, the British forces were planning to breach the embassy. It was then that Ahwazi group decided to execute Abbas Lavassani.
At 7 pm, on Monday 5 May 1980, the SAS blew out the embassy windows and entered the building. A fierce fire fight between both sides ensued. This resulted in the killing of 4 group members, with the fifth member of the group surrendering himself. Despite the fact that he surrendered, the SAS shot him multiple times, which resulted in his death. The last member of the Ahwazi group, Fowzi Rafraf, was successful in getting out of the embassy building along with hostages. Fawzi Rafraf was the only surviving member of the hostage-taking group. He was detained and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The operations carried out by the Ahwazi freedom fighters coincided with the taking over of the American embassy in Iran by a pro-Khomeini extremist group. The latter incident prompted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to officially issue a kill order to all members of the Ahwazi group who had seized the embassy in London. This was done in order to appease the Islamic Republic and convince the pro-Khomeini extremist group which was holding American hostages at the same time would to release them.
After the SAS intentionally killed the five members of Ahwazi group, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iranian President, expressed his thanks and appreciation on behalf of the Supreme Leader to the Queen of England and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for their handling of the incident.
More than three decades after these events, the British government has not officially released the death tolls and the number of wounded in this incident. To this day, it still refuses to explain why a person named Shaye Hamed AL-Sahar[one of the member of the group of the six armed men who seized the Iranian Embassy in London] who surrendered himself over to the SAS in the embassy was killed in a shower of bullets. After murdering the five members of this Ahwazi Arab group, Britain once again rushed to the aid of the oppressive Iranian regime – thereby aiding in the silencing of the Ahwazi Arab voice who are, to this day, victims of an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Iranian regime.
The dead bodies of the five Ahwazi freedom fighters were secretly buried in a cemetery in London. For thirty years, their place of burial remained secret. But in 2009, a man who worked in the cemetery revealed to exiled Ahwazi Arab activists in London the place of burial of these men who had sacrificed their lives in defense of the Ahwazi Arab identity and homeland. A witness who had participated in the shrouding and burial their bodies said they were riddled with bullets and it seemed that each of them were shot more than 20 times. This testimony seems to indicate the British government’s intent was not to disarm and disable the men during the embassy situation, but rather kill them. Fowzi Rafaf, the last surviving Ahwazi freedom fighter, was released from prison and allowed to stay in Britain after a reduction to his sentence.