Iran reopens embassy wrecked in 1980 siege

AFTER nearly 14 years as a gutted wreck that often reflected the state of Anglo-Iranian relations, the Iranian embassy in London was re-inaugurated yesterday. The building at 16 Prince's Gate, where the SAS successfully ended a week-long siege in May 1980, has been restored at a cost of more than pounds 5m to an opulence that seems oddly out of place in view of the still troubled relationship.

After the charge d'affaires hoisted the Islamic Republic's flag from one of the balconies once used by the SAS to rescue embassy staff held hostage, guests were invited to inspect the marble and chandeliers adorning the rooms reflecting traditional Islamic architecture. A glass cage held a state-of-the-art computerised switchboard adorned with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor as spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

For those female guests who had not visited an Iranian mission before, a tray of assorted and neatly folded silk squares was brought in to serve as temporary hejab (even in the West, Iranian embassies invite female visitors to cover their heads).

Over orange juice at a small reception, the charge, Gholamreza Ansari, explained that he had 'deliberately kept the ceremony at a minimum as a sign of respect for the two members of staff who lost their lives 13 years ago'. The two were killed by Iraqi-backed gunmen who seized the embassy over demands for the release of political prioners in Iran.

The SAS Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Team made a spectacular assault on the building, killing four of the five gunmen and rescuing the surviving 19 hostages. One of the captives, PC Trevor Lock, became a national hero for easing the rescue operation from within. A Iranian survivor of the siege recalled yesterday: 'I thought we were going to be burned alive.'

Mr Ansari said: 'At this point it may be appropriate once again to thank the British authorities for their efforts to bring the siege to an end at the time and for their assistance in the reconstruction of our new embassy building.' Under a legal compensation settlement, Britain paid pounds 1.82m of the reparation cost (the more than pounds 3m remaining was paid by the cash-strapped Iranian government); in return, Iran paid around pounds 1m for damages caused to the British embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

He added: 'Relations between the United Kingdom and Iran are centuries old. In my part of the world we have a special respect for old things. Let us hope that this enhancement of the form will be matched by a similar amount of improvement in the content of bilateral relations.'

Because of claims that Iran is a state-sponsor of terrorism - and the bilateral problem of the fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie - Britain has consistently resisted upgrading relations with Tehran to ambassadorial level.

But Mr Ansari yesterday insisted it was his country that was the target of terrorism: 'The Islamic Republic of Iran has been an innocent victim of terrorism from the very beginning of its establishment.' The siege was but 'one of many incidents of terrorism suffered by the people of the Islamic Republic'. He cited, among other incidents, the assassination of 70 clerics and politicians in Tehran in the 1980s.

(Photographs omitted)