30 Years Later: Iranian embassy siege - negotiator 'felt he failed'

Breaking News

On 5 May 1980, the world looked on as the SAS brought the Iranian embassy siege to a bloody end in London.

Six days earlier, Met police Ch Insp Max Vernon had received a phone call summoning his hostage negotiation skills. Here, he relives the events of 30 years ago:

"I was part of the fraud squad in Holborn at the time the siege started but I had done the negotiation course and so it happened that I was pulled in.

"I had no idea what had happened until I got there. The local commander had been using a loud hailer to talk to the gunmen but that was replaced with a military field telephone and we cut off all other telephone lines to stop them communicating with the outside world."

Mr Vernon was one of six negotiators working shifts around-the-clock trying to achieve a peaceful end to the siege.

"Our job was to get the gunmen to walk out without anyone dying or giving into their demands. We had to buy time for both sides. It was rotten. We would be pushed by the gunmen to get them their demands and we were pushed by our bosses to talk them out without giving up anything.

"I only ever talked to one gunman, Salim. He was educated and very polite. He was the only one who spoke English. He demanded a translator and we got one for him but in hindsight it was a real mistake.

"We later found out she was saying things we hadn't said, like they were all going to die. After two days we stopped using her."

The negotiators never asked to speak to any of the hostages but Salim would force them to talk to the police.

"It put pressure on us and created huge tension by putting hostages on our line. It was very unhelpful because we would have to lie to them and if a negotiator is caught lying they lose all credibility. When they were on the line it was our job to get them off as soon as possible."


On Saturday, 5 May, the embassy's press attache, Abbas Lavasani, was executed by the gunmen. It signalled the beginning of the end of the siege.

"Our bosses kept a lot of information away from us because that way nothing could slip out inadvertently. But once the Iranian diplomat was shot we knew it was all over and the SAS were going in. Salim also knew they had crossed the line. He didn't do the shooting which made him even more depressed.

"At that point we started lying our heads off. We told Salim he would get all his demands. The important thing for us was to keep him occupied. At one point he heard a window break and said, 'Something's going on,' but I told him it wasn't and asked who he wanted to drive him away. Then all hell broke loose. We sat back and listened to it all.

"How anybody came out of that place alive I will never know."

The former negotiator, now 74, said the sudden, bloody ending to the siege left him feeling like a tightly-wound elastic band which had suddenly been cut loose.

"At the end I sat down in the corner and cried. I suspect my colleagues were doing the same.

"I felt I had failed. People had died. We were meant to talk them out without any shooting. I was in abject misery but the next day I was back at my desk. I was in a deep depression for months.

"There has been nothing like it before or since. We learned while we were working on it and people are still learning from what we did, right and wrong."

Later a police psychiatrist helped Mr Vernon understand he had not failed and that he should have been warned to expect the inevitable depression that followed the siege.

Mr Vernon went on to run the Met's negotiation course from 1983 to 1986.

comments powered by Disqus