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British ambassador describes mob attack in Tehran

December 2, 2011 | 12:09 pm

REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Dominick Chilcott, gave a detailed account to the BBC of Tuesday’s attack on his embassy in Tehran by a mob angry over Britain severing financial ties to Iran and imposing further sanctions.  

Chilcott said the embassy staff was trapped in two British Embassy compounds while attackers chanted and shouted outside the gates. The mob seemingly "had the acquiescence and support of the state" as police did not intervene, he said.

"The big question in all our minds was 'Where are the police? Why aren’t they keeping these people out?'"  he said.

As demonstrators swarmed over the gates and walls of the embassy, his staff took refuge in safe houses within the compound, but those were also attacked. Doors and windows were smashed and state rooms were looted, including one of historic significance where Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, celebrated his birthday in 1943 during the Tehran conference with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Russian leader Joseph Stalin.

Portraits of British royalty were ripped off the walls or defaced, and computers, mobile phones and other valuables were stolen, in what he described as a mix of "mindless vandalism" and "sinister targeted theft."

As he and his staff were smoked out of an upper-floor refuge by fires started below, they finally were escorted by police to another building in the compound.

But "the behavior of the police was so strange, we weren’t sure whose side they were on," Chilcott said.

Chilcott said he felt the regime underestimated how strongly the West would respond to the embassy attack. 

The Iranian Embassy in London was vacated following Foreign Secretary William Hague’s announcement Wednesday that diplomats would be expelled. On Friday afternoon, staff packed up and left on a chartered flight from London’s Heathrow airport.


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-- Janet Stobart

Photo: An Iranian student holds a picture of Queen Elizabeth II after hundreds of protesters broke into the British Embassy complex in Tehran. Credit: Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA