Q. The embassy’s main Ferdowsi compound in central Tehran has been the site of many protests, hasn’t it?
A. Yes. But in the five weeks since I arrived in Tehran, we hadn’t had a protest. I’d heard about them, and oddly enough I was quite looking forward to getting in one demonstration before I had to leave. They are generally noisy affairs with lots of chanting and maybe some stone throwing — and there was no reason to suspect this would be any different. The police had told us to expect one, and we approached it the way we would any other demo by going into what we call “lockdown.” The essential staff stays put, locked into the embassy buildings and guard house. Local staff leave. Other staff and spouses went to our second compound, Golhak, a few miles away. We had mobile phones and land lines to stay in touch, and the police didn’t say anything about a demonstration there.
When and how did you realize this was something other than routine?
The first hour or so was much as we expected. It’s hard to know how many students there were — a few hundred, with just under half of them women. I was on the top floor of the chancery building — there were 10 of us up there — and we went to the windows to look down. Stones were hitting the building, and it was intimidating. But it wasn’t until we saw some protesters run across in front of our building, straight to the flagpole, and begin hauling the Union Jack down that we realized things had gone beyond routine. It was a major invasion, and the Iranian police were making no effort to help. We have our own guards, maybe a dozen of them, but they are not armed or equipped to resist this kind of incursion.
The students raised the Iranian flag — though not very well.
Did it make you think back to the crisis of 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage for more than a year?
I was busy trying to direct our response, and I also had our dog, Pumpkin, in my arms. She hates noise — and the last thing I needed was for her to bolt for cover and disappear. She is a terrier.
There were sounds of students trying to get into our building, smashing the windows. And there were also alarms going off — at 140 decibels. I was in touch with my wife, Jane, who was with Iranian friends, by phone. But it’s alarming for anyone to hear you speak against that background noise. You also have to make a real effort to think clearly and carefully.