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Aust paid compo for '92 Iran embassy raid

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin

In what was one of the worst, perhaps the worst, attack on a diplomatic mission in Australia, dissidents broke into the Iranian embassy in Canberra, beat up staff and trashed the place.

In a few minutes, a group of some 15 adherents of the of the Mujahadeen El Khalq (MEK) caused extensive damage, setting fires, smashing furniture and fittings and attacking eight staff, with three needing hospital treatment.

What occurred was aired across Australia that evening - the perpetrators thoughtfully notified SBS television whose news crew filmed the entire attack.

Many of those responsible were speedily arrested.

Cabinet papers for 1992/93, released by the National Archives of Australia, show that it was Australia that had to pick up the damage bill, paying compensation to the Islamic Repubic of Iran as well as to staff members.

However, what Iran wanted and what Australia thought reasonable were very different.

Then foreign minister Gareth Evans said Australia needed to pay compensation because of the failure of Commonwealth authorities responsible for diplomatic protection to prevent the attack.

This occurred on April 6, 1992 and coincided with protests, some violent, at Iranian missions in New York, Ottawa, Berne, Bonn, Copenhagen, The Hague, London, Paris, Oslo and Stockholm. They were mounted in protest at an Iranian air attack on a MEK base inside Iraq.

Some of the protests occurred before the Canberra attack and there was criticism of Australian security authorities for failing to appreciate the Iranian embassy in Canberra might also be attacked.

Cabinet approved payment of $187,200 to Iran and $187,000 to the embassy, including compensation for $US65,000 and 217 blank passports they said were stolen.

Payment to the embassy could be increased to a maximum of $378,000 if it provided persuasive evidence the damage exceeded $187,000.

As well, $282,500 was paid to certain staff as compensation for personal injuries or nervous shock, although they sought much more.

On behalf of embassy staff, the ambassador claimed $1,770,000 for personal injuries and stress.

On the question of compensation for personal injury, Evans said "to prevent this issue dragging on and affecting the bilateral relationship" it would be appropriate to offer compensation assessed in accordance with principles of Australian law.

It was a period when in dealing with Iran, successive government decoupled politics from trade.

That is, we didn't much approve of Iran's repressive regime and its manifold human rights violations and support of terrorists. On the other hand it bought a lot of our primary products.

By the end of the year, cabinet was dealing with another facet of the relationship with Iran - what to do about Iranian diplomats "engaging in activities prejudicial to security."

The answer was, subject to an assessment by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, expel those already here who were deemed a security risk and refuse entry visas to those on their way.

Much of the cabinet submission from Evans and then attorney-general Michael Duffy is redacted on security grounds. That includes a paragraph spelling out the threat.

It gives some vague hints.

"Iranian clandestine interference presents a threat to Australia's security," it said, without going into detail.

The submission said there was a risk of Iranian retaliation, possibly against Australian diplomats but that hadn't been a problem yet.

"Australia's refusal of a number of visas on security grounds to Iranian nationals has not resulted in strong protest by the Iranian government or evident damage to the bilateral relationship," it said.

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