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“It’s Always About Oil”: CIA & MI6 Staged Coup in Iran 70 Years Ago, Destroying Democracy in Iran

StoryAugust 23, 2023
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We look at the 70th anniversary of the August 19, 1953, U.S.- and U.K-backed coup in Iran, which took place two years after Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry that had been controlled by the company now known as British Petroleum. “If nationalization in Iran of oil was successful, this would set a terrible example to other countries where U.S. oil interests were present,” explains Ervand Abrahamian, Iranian historian and author of Oil Crisis in Iran: From Nationalism to Coup d’Etat and The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. While the CIA has historically taken credit for Mosaddegh’s overthrow, “the British have not admitted their leading role,” notes Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani, whose documentary film Coup 53 uncovers the influence of MI6 agents who sought to preserve their imperial-era access to Iranian oil and pulled in the Americans by promising a “slice.” Seventy years later, says Amirani, “We are still living with the ripples of this disastrous event.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to look at the 70th anniversary of an event that reshaped the Middle East: the 1953 U.S.- and U.K.-backed coup in Iran that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The aftershocks of the coup are still being felt today.

The coup came two years after Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry. He argued Iran should begin profiting from its vast oil reserves, which had been exclusively controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The company later became known as British Petroleum, BP.

The coup was led in part by a CIA agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. The crushing of Iran’s first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the shah, who relied heavily on U.S. aid and arms. The anti-American backlash that toppled the shah in 1979 shook the whole region.

In moment, we’ll be joined by two guests who have researched the coup for years. But first, we turn to the trailer of the documentary Coup 53.

RICHARD NIXON: In 1953, the United States, together with Britain, participated in a coup in Iran that got rid of Mosaddegh.

NEWSREEL: Mosaddegh and his government were swept from power in favor of General Zahedi. Three hundred killed and hundreds wounded is a conservative estimate.

TAGHI AMIRANI: The British government has never officially acknowledged its role in the coup.

GEORGE MIDDLETON: I don’t think at any time we really planned a coup d’état.

TAGHI AMIRANI: These words have not been heard or seen for over 34 years, evidence that has the potential to turn a dark chapter in history inside out.

“Your British counterpart was in fact [blank]. Could you tell me something about the man, [blank]?

Norman Darbyshire, take one.

HUMPHREY TREVELYAN: He was somebody who felt that there were things to be said that hadn’t been said.

TAGHI AMIRANI: A member of the British government was involved in the assassination of the chief of police.

UNIDENTIFIED: How did it come to this?

TAGHI AMIRANI: So, they tied him up, strangled him and shot him.

“Were you involved in Afshartus assassination?”

NORMAN DARBYSHIRE: [played by Ralph Fiennes] Yes.

ARDESHIR ZAHEDI: My father is the real prime minister.

STEPHEN KINZER: The coup in Iran is shaping politics to this day. The United States does not want democracy in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer of the documentary Coup 53, directed by the Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani, who’s joining us now. He made the film with the Oscar-winning filmmaker Walter Murch. We’re also joined by Ervand Abrahamian. He’s a retired professor of history at the City University of New York, Baruch College. His most recent book is titled Oil Crisis in Iran: From Nationalism to Coup d’Etat, the author of several books, including The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations.

We are talking about an event 70 years ago that has shaped not only the Middle East, but, I think you could say, geopolitics in the world today. Ervand Abrahamian, if you can start off by talking about the significance of this moment? I mean, a year after, the same model would be used to overthrow the democratically elected leader in Guatemala. But what happened, why the United States and Britain were so hell-bent on toppling democracy in Iran?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, the official argument, that is constantly repeated, was it was to save Iran from communism and the Soviet threat. In reality, when you look at the documents, there was no communist threat or Soviet interest in Iran.

The main concern of the United States was that if nationalization in Iran of oil was successful, this would set a terrible example to other countries where U.S. oil interests were present, countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Indonesia. So, the nightmare in Washington was that if you have a successful nationalization in Iran, this would be a contagious disease that would spread throughout the world, and this would change the whole balance of power. And this was really the main interest.

But, of course, American politicians don’t want to admit that economic issues are at play with their foreign policies, so they’ve underplayed this. They never mentioned this publicly. What they insisted was the so-called communist threat. The British, in fact, were quite honest about this. They said they used the bogey of communism to basically persuade people that the coup was justifiable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Professor, when you say there was no communist threat to take over the country, but there certainly was a vibrant communist party in Iran at that time, the Tudeh Party, which backed nationalization, even though it also opposed Mosaddegh on a bunch of issues. Wasn’t the attempt of the United States to use — and actually, as I understand it, some of the documents revealed recently show that the British and the U.S. actually tried to stir up the population in Iran against the communists by actually backing false flag operations in the weeks before the overthrow?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: They did that, but, you know, the Tudeh Party, you could say, had its strength in the factories, in the street. They organized strikes, demonstrations. But people in Washington, people like Roosevelt, the Dulleses, Eisenhower, were hard-nosed realists. They knew that there’s a difference between, you know, organizing a demonstration in Tehran to carrying out a revolution or a coup. And the CIA reports from Tehran — these are the actual CIA analysts on the ground — they said that the Tudeh Party was not a threat. It wasn’t even prepared for a coup. It wasn’t talking and thinking of a coup.

And even the readings that was required for Tudeh Party members in 1953 was Lenin’s work on ultra-leftism, infantile leftism. So, a communist party that was thinking about a coup or a revolution would not be using Lenin’s infantile leftism as a main instruction book.

So, this was an imagined threat. And, of course, the press, especially The New York Times, played up with this. They exaggerated Tudeh’s strength, the size of their demonstrations, in order to create the mood in the American public that there was actually a major threat coming from the left in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to an excerpt from Coup 53, where we see our other guest, the filmmaker Taghi Amirani, as he meets with Malcolm Byrne at the National Security Archive.

MALCOLM BYRNE: I am the deputy director and research director at the National Security Archive, which is a nongovernmental organization based at George Washington University. There are at least three internal histories that the CIA has produced. In probably the late 1970s, one of these items was produced.

TAGHI AMIRANI: Is this when you write to them asking for information?

MALCOLM BYRNE: Well, this is the response letter to me, saying, “We’re enclosing this document that you requested.”


MALCOLM BYRNE: And then here’s the document itself, called “The Battle for Iran.”

TAGHI AMIRANI: “The Battle for Iran,” which is still going on.

MALCOLM BYRNE: This is what’s new about this release: covert action. In earlier versions, which you will see, this is all blotted out. Keep that out, in case we want to look at it.

TAGHI AMIRANI: So we can take this one out.

MALCOLM BYRNE: There’s still a lot that’s not there.

TAGHI AMIRANI: I like the fact that there’s still a lot of blank pages.

MALCOLM BYRNE: They’re supposed to show you what was there.


MALCOLM BYRNE: What was new was essentially this page. This: “the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction.” They had never, to my knowledge, officially acknowleged their role —


MALCOLM BYRNE: — in the coup.

TAGHI AMIRANI: I’m standing in front of a filing cabinet of a drawer full of documents that essentially changed the fate of my country and changed my fate, you know, what happened to me, what happened to my family. It’s just like how your lives, your destiny, your fate is —


TAGHI AMIRANI: — encapsulated.

MALCOLM BYRNE: Yeah, in a half a file drawer.

TAGHI AMIRANI: In a half a — this is it. This just changed Iran, this box of papers.

AMY GOODMAN: In this next clip from Coup 53, Taghi Amirani reads from the interview transcripts he found with the MI6 spy Norman Darbyshire, that were done for the British TV series End of Empire.

TAGHI AMIRANI: “Excellent — if we want the coup in detail — & even if not!”

Why did they select bits of interview from him, cut it out, paste it into a script, probably edit it into the film, but he didn’t make the final cut? He’s not in the finished film.

In a remarkable stroke of luck, we’ve discovered that the British Film Institute Archive hold all the unused footage from the End of Empire Iran episode, freely available to the public but never digitized until now, 36 cans of film, 520 minutes of interview, among which we hope to find Norman Darbyshire.

WALTER MURCH: And it’s recording. Great.

TAGHI AMIRANI: We digitized the entire collection of End of Empire given to us by the BFI. We did not find Norman Darbyshire.

AMY GOODMAN: And in this clip from Coup 53, Taghi Amirani goes through the photographs and film clips he accessed from End of Empire, the British TV series about the end of British Empire, as he searched for footage of the MI6 spy Norman Darbyshire.

TAGHI AMIRANI: British Embassy staff photograph, Tehran, class of 1952. And this is Norman Darbyshire, looking very much the cool undercover spy. Darbyshire would have been 29 when this photograph was taken. He was born on the 1st of October, 1924, and he died on the 17th of June, 1993.

His CIA counterpart was Stephen Meade. We found his can of film even though he’s not in the finished film. Stephen Meade on Iran. This is what the End of Empire production team thought of Stephen Meade” A young 69, hatchet-faced, like a bit part player in a B movie thriller … and above all, GOOD.” This is brilliant. Wow. “Your British counterpart was in fact [blank]. Could you tell me something about the man, [blank]?

ALISON ROOPER: Your British counterpart was in fact Norman Darbyshire.


bq. ALISON ROOPER: Could you tell something about the man, Norman Darbyshire?

STEPHEN MEADE: Oh, I didn’t know him at all before I met him.

TAGHI AMIRANI: “What kind of a man was [blank]?

ALISON ROOPER: What kind of a man was Norman Darbyshire?

TAGHI AMIRANI: What kind of a man was Norman Darbyshire? And why has his name been blanked out in these documents?

AMY GOODMAN: And in this clip from Coup 53, the actor Ralph Fiennes reenacts the part of the Norman Darbyshire interview transcript found after he was interviewed but did not appear in the End of Empire series.

TAGHI AMIRANI: Norman Darbyshire, take one. What you’re about to see here, as the team sets up at the Savoy, is the result of a failure to find any film or audio of the Darbyshire interview. So we resorted to bringing his words to life.

Ah, there it is. OK.

Ralph Fiennes is about to speak Darbyshire’s words recorded back in 1983 telling us things the British didn’t want anyone to hear.

And these are the bits that the people who made the original documentary loved, which is also what we love.

RALPH FIENNES: Sorry, I’m getting drawn into the —

TAGHI AMIRANI: Just imagine how I felt when I came across it. It was one late night in the office.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, a clip from Coup 53. Taghi Amirani was an Iranian physicist who became a filmmaker and directed this documentary, Coup 53, released August 19th, 2019, the anniversary of the U.S.-backed, MI6-backed — or, I should say, “created” — coup that overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran.

This is an astounding documentary. This is a documentary, Taghi, the likes of which we rarely see. If people are wondering why Ralph Fiennes is in it, the famous actor, it’s because he was replacing the cutout words of this British spy. If you can talk about what Darbyshire means in terms of British history in Iran, and also, on the U.S. side, Kermit Roosevelt, who will later talk quite honestly about how he went on behalf of the Dulles brothers — right? — John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA and the State Department, John Foster Dulles who had represented corporations interested in overthrowing democracies, and overthrew Mosaddegh?

TAGHI AMIRANI: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to join you, and I’m delighted that you find the film astounding. And if it’s astounding, it’s entirely due to Walter Murch and the incredible cast of interviewees, including Professor Abrahamian, along with Stephen Kinzer and David Talbot and Malcolm Byrne, who were the backbone of commentary and knowledgeable information on the coup.

In the absence of the British official admission to their leading role in this coup, Norman Darbyshire’s interview and its transcript stands in for that admission. Imagine you’re making a film about the most important pivotal event in your country’s history, which didn’t just affect Iran but the region and the world, as we’ve discussed and we will discuss more, and you find the man who was essentially the writer and director of this coup, in his own words, revealing the most incredible amount of data, going rogue, for whatever — we can speculate as to why he went rogue, as the leading MI6 officer in charge of the coup — giving this incredible interview, and then vanishing. And for whatever reason, the End of Empire producers, Brian Lapping, Norma Percy and Mark Anderson and Alison Rooper, could not or did not use this interview in any form in their film.

We got lucky. I got lucky. I am not the world’s best documentary maker, but I am the luckiest in the team I got together, the interviewees I managed to persuade to appear, and just a lucky break to come across this transcript, which was, ironically, in the basement of Mosaddegh’s grandson in Paris, until I showed up and found it by chance. And my mind just blew by the level of revelation and staggering amount of detail.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Taghi Amirani, I wanted to ask you — the lessons for today, especially for people in other parts of the world, about these coups is the way that the British government and the U.S. government often tried to mask their actions by promoting so-called demonstrations or uprisings in the street against governments that they wanted overthrown — particularly, I think, in the Iranian situation, the use of radical Islamic clerics. For instance, there was at the time Ayatollah Kashani, who had been a collaborator with the Nazis during World War II, but then was utilized by the British and the Americans to stir up protest against the Mosaddegh regime. And, of course, there was a young cleric, Khomeini, a follower of Kashani, who was in the street protesting against Mosaddegh at the time. Could you talk about the use of the — by the United States and the British — because, of course, they went on to do it in Afghanistan, against Sadat in Egypt, and others — to use radical Islamic clerics as a means to attack modernists or progressive political leaders?

TAGHI AMIRANI: My enemy’s enemy is always my friend. And, in fact, Ayatollah Kashani was very much on Mosaddegh’s side. They were working together in trying to nationalize oil and stand up to the British. They parted ways in July 1952 in a huge demonstration, when Mosaddegh resigned because he wanted to have more control and executive power and wanted the shah to be just a simple symbolic monarch. But they parted ways because, in Kashani’s eyes, Mosaddegh was [inaudible] hungry dictator and trying to keep too much control in his hands.

The melting pot of the currents against Mosaddegh was multifaceted. The mob was created. The religious community turned against him. Of course, agents were on the ground. Bribery was obviously a key point. The press were bought. These are the key ingredients of any coup, we sense, and once you’ve got those key elements in place, including assassination of key allies, it’s a repeat-and-rinse process.

I don’t have information of Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Khomeini, being in the crowd, but I know in Oliver Stone’s series, The Secret History of the United States — or, The Untold History of the United States, it is mentioned. But there is a lot of debate about the conflict between Kashani and Khomeini — sorry, Kashani and Mosaddegh. He certainly expressed delight at the fall of Mosaddegh post-coup. And he had ambitions about being a leader of the Muslim world, not just in Iran.

But Mosaddegh had his — he had written his own death sentence the moment he nationalized oil. The British decided he had to go that moment. In fact, we have people in our interviews from End of Empire saying, “The moment he came into office, we knew we had to get rid of him.” The bogeyman of communism was exactly that. We have documents which we will put out in our new sequel. We are making a coda about what happened to Coup 53 since its release, called Coup 53.1. And in that, we will show these documents, where the Americans are discussing with the British whether they’ll come in and join the coup, and they’re discussing share of the oil, basically saying, “Yeah, we’ll help you, if we can have a slice of, you know, Iranian oil,” which is exactly what happened post-coup in the consortium that was formed, in which the American oil companies walked away with 40%.

And so, yeah, it’s still debated. It’s still a hot topic. Of course, the impact is still with us. We are living with the consequences of the coup. And, of course, it emboldened the CIA to go out and do it again in Guatemala. In fact, this year we’re marking the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup, Pinochet replacing Allende like the shah replaced Mosaddegh. History is not the past. The past is not the past. And we are still living with the ripples of this disastrous event.

AMY GOODMAN: Taghi Amirani, if you can talk about specifically the U.S. role? You have this fascinating interview. What is it? The interview with Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, who was an official within the CIA. He says he takes a couple suitcases filled with money, a million dollars, but actually it only cost him $60,000. But talk about what he did in Iran, and doing this at the behest of the British. It was Anglo-Iranian Oil, now BP. Iran had thrown out the British, seeing Mosaddegh realized that the British were fomenting a coup. So they called on the U.S. And ultimately, it would be under Eisenhower that they would overthrow Iran.

TAGHI AMIRANI: Yeah. See, I grew up, we all grew up, with the story of the CIA coup run by Kermit Roosevelt, as Professor Abrahamian puts it very eloquently in our film. Kermit didn’t speak Persian. He was only in Iran for three weeks. He didn’t know Iran at all. He was more of a bagman and an adventurist. And he was allowed to go and take credit for the coup. He wrote books about it. He was on chat shows, talk shows. He had contracts. He had audiences with the shah. He did really well out of this coup.

And Darbyshire, as Ralph Fiennes tells us in a brilliant interview in The New Yorker, essentially wanted his curtain call. He wanted to reclaim credit for what was his show. In fact, just last week, there was a huge profile of Darbyshire in The Guardian by Julian Borger, the foreign affairs editor of The Guardian, went in great detail about his life and his motives. And so, this is, essentially, partly professional rivalry. “I do all the hard work.” Darbyshire was in Iran from the age of 19 as a soldier. He spoke probably better Persian than me. He knew the Iranian street. He really understood the psyche of the Iranian mob, as he says in the interview in our film. He knows how to turn them, what buttons to press. This was a Darbyshire project.

And as we talked about earlier, the British wanted their oil back. This coup was always about oil. It’s always about oil. Iraq was about oil. Venezuela is about oil. It’s always about oil. As the great Robert Fisk said, if Iraq’s only export was turnips, we wouldn’t be there.

And so, Darbyshire is the main star of this film. For whatever reason, he didn’t appear. We got lucky we found him. We got lucky we got Ralph Fiennes to be his avatar. And everything that happened to Coup 53, the incentive for me making this film, is the British have not officially admitted to their key role, their leading role. This was an MI6 coup, aided by the CIA, who was dragged in. It was a new organization in 1953. It was the first time it went off campus to play. And it did well. You know, it was quick. It was cheap. And no Americans were killed. A few hundred Iranians died, but who cares about that? So, it emboldened them to do it again. And it was — you know, there’s a letter from Allen Dulles to Kermit after he comes back from Iran, saying, “Have a great weekend. Come in on Monday. I’ve got some other ideas” — obviously, Guatemala coming up.

There was one other thing I had to say. Kermit Roosevelt, in not really being an expert, given the lead and the playing field to write his book and give that interview to [inaudible] as the clip that we see in the film where he says, “I had a million, and I spent $60,000.” He gives another interview in which he says, “I had $700,000. I only spent $10,000.” I wouldn’t take anything Kermit Roosevelt says at face value as the truth. He was a fabricator of stuff and a self-aggrandizing guy. And that, I can see, will also not sit well with Darbyshire, you know, Kermit just spewing out different stories about how much money he spent. Darbyshire says, in his interview, you know, “The coup cost 700,000 pounds. I know, because I spent it.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in Professor Abrahamian into the conversation again. Professor, this whole issue of the change in administrations in the United States? Because the nationalization happened during the Truman administration, but President Truman was reluctant to intervene, according to some accounts. It was only when Eisenhower came in, and, of course, the Dulles brothers as part of his administration, that the coup moved forward, as far as the United States was concerned. Could you talk about the change in administrations, and also the impact on Iran subsequent to the coup, of course, leading up to eventually the Iranian Revolution of 1979?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. I mean, the conventional view, as you said, it’s that Truman, a Democratic administration, was willing to negotiate and deal with Mosaddegh; it was the Republican Eisenhower administration that carried out the coup. The trouble is, if you look at the documents, right from the beginning, as soon as Mosaddegh was elected prime minister and nationalized, the Americans — at that time, the Truman administration was just as eager to actually get rid of Mosaddegh. They weren’t thinking about a coup; they were thinking of a political means of getting rid of him. In fact, they asked the shah to dismiss him. They had misunderstood the Iranian Constitution. The shah didn’t have the power to dismiss him. So, right from the beginning, the Truman administration was already trying to ease Mosaddegh out.

But the interesting thing is, the reason for that was not because they were against coups. It was, much more surprisingly, the shah’s reluctance to carry out a coup. The shah, right in ’51, said that “If I go against Mosaddegh in oil nationalization, I will delegitimize my monarchy, the whole of my authority. I cannot do that.” And he was the one who was very reluctant to carry out the coup. And the —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Professor.

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Right. What the Truman administration really wanted to do was get rid of Mosaddegh through the political process. It was only when that failed that the new administration then actually put into effect a military coup.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Ervand Abrahamian, retired professor of history at the City University of New York, most recent book, Oil Crisis in Iran: From Nationalism to Coup d’Etat, and Taghi Amirani, the Iranian filmmaker, director of Coup 53. Everyone should see it. This is the 70th anniversary of the coup in Iran.

A very happy birthday to Julie Crosby! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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