London — Britain's self-confidence has received a welcome fillip from the successful rescue of most of the hostages held in the Iranian Embassy here. In contrast to the failure of the American rescue mission in Iran last month, the lifting of the embassy siege in London after six days showed the British capable of far more than (in the self-deprecating phrase often heard here) "just muddling through."
As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told a cheering House of Commons on May 6 , the rescue operation "made all of us on both sides of the House proud to be British."
The 40 or so black-clad Special Air Service (SAS) troops who freed 19 hostages and killed four of the five gunmen came away almost unscathed after a brief but fierce attack. Two hostages were executed by their captors before the British assault, and three more were wounded during the shootings and explosions that marked the fray.
Apparently using specially developed stun grenades to temporarily build and disorient the gunmen, the SAS troopers swooped from rooftops on ropes and reportedly blasted through the wall of an adjoining building in a well-coordinated, smartly planned raid.
Throughout the siege, the Iranian government communicated with the British through the British Embassy in Tehran -- which, in accordance with European Community sanctions against Iran, has been slimmed to about half a dozen staffers. Yet even on the Muslim holy days, communications between the governments reportedly were good.
After the rescue, Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr sent swift thanks to Mrs. Thatcher. But although he described the "hostage-taking event at the Iranian Embassy" as "unjust," reports from Iran note that his phrasing seemed to argue away any similarities between the London embassy siege and the takeover at the American Embassy in Tehran last November.
Whether Britain can build a closer relationship -- close enough perhaps, to mediate the Iranian-American dispute -- is still unclear. The British will is there, however.
"I believe the way the operation was carried out in this country," said Mrs. Thatcher in the House of Commons, "will have an effect on the future position with regard to the American hostages in Iran."
But Iran-watchers note that a fundamental part of the equation -- the balance of power in Iran's internal struggles between clerics, politicians, and students -- remains untouched by the London embassy saga.
The official Iranian line remains that the American Embassy was a "nest of spies," while the London embassy was victim of a plot by the British, the US Central Intelligence Agency, and the Iraqis.
Will the freeing of the hostages improve British-Iranian relations? "One just has to be pessimistic in view of what they've said publicly," says a Western diplomat.
Iran-watchers here point out that Britain, after the United States, is publicly enemy No. 2 in Iran -- "maybe even No. 1 1/2," says one. Anti-Shah Iranians bitterly recall the part played by Britain with the CIA in the overthrow of former Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, when the Shah returned to power. Mrs. Thatcher's support of President Carter has not helped close the rift.
Nevertheless, says a British diplomat close to the siege, the Iranians "played it very straight."
"They could have been difficult," he said, and could have "taken a very antagonistic line" in order to forestall an unfavorable contrast between Britain's protection of embassies and Iran's lack of it.
Iran was much more helpful than other Arab nations who reluctantly consulted the Britain on the last day of the siege, the diplomat says.