The great thing about history, theoretically, is that it can be verified by documentary evidence. This, superficially, is the great selling point of Taghi Amirani’s new documentary, Coup 53, about the unseating in August 1953 of Dr Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran, ostensibly by his internal opponents but with the aid – as was later revealed – of agents of the CIA and MI6.
It was decades before either agency admitted publicly that it had had any involvement with the coup, which strengthened the position of an otherwise weak Shah and shored up Anglo-American interests in the country. At the time, all that was missing was the admission: it was the immediate subject of informed gossip that the British and the Americans had got rid of a man who was threatening their strategic and economic interests.
The documentary evidence comes not in the form of contemporaneous material – that would be too good to be true – but in the discovery of complete transcripts of interviews given in 1983 for the Granada Television series End of Empire, one of which is of a conversation with Norman Darbyshire, MI6’s “man in Tehran”. Darbyshire – who, after the severing of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran in 1951, had to operate from Cyprus – died in 1994, and was filmed for the programme, but the videotape of his interview is missing.
According to the transcript, voiced in Amirani’s film by Ralph Fiennes, Darbyshire admitted everything about Britain’s involvement in the Mossadegh coup: not just the extensive bribery of Mossadegh’s opponents, government officials and even people in the military to move against an increasingly unpopular prime minister, but also how he and his CIA counterpart worked on the Shah’s sister to get her to put pressure on her brother to back the coup. Darbyshire also outlines the tactical plan to get the coup underway – to start burning down the offices of newspapers hostile to Mossadegh, with the intention of getting the Tehran mob out in force and on the right side.
For the coup to have happened without MI6 and CIA involvement would have been one of the most remarkable coincidences in history. The British were seeking a certain degree of revenge for Mossadegh’s decision, in 1951, to nationalise the oil fields around Abadan that Britain had for decades invested in and developed, and to reassert a certainty of supply and a return on that investment. The Americans, as the Cold War picked up momentum, were conscious that Iran was ripe for a communist takeover. Given that a country does not keep a secret service for no purpose, it would have been even more remarkable had the coup not happened at all.
Amirani has various contentions that are doubtless designed to pull people in to see his film, and which do not all, by any means, stand up. The game is given away early, when he describes Mossadegh as the Iranian equivalent of Gandhi: that is nonsense. His main contention, however, takes us into the murky world of counterfactual history, which is a mug’s game: that had we and the Americans not plotted to dethrone Mossadegh, the whole future not just of Iran, but of the Middle East, would have been very different and therefore more benign.
He paints the Mossadegh regime as some kind of land of milk and honey, ruled by an almost saintly figure, and argues that, had Mossadegh not been displaced, the Shah’s increasingly repressive regime would not have turned out as it did, Iran would not have had the 1979 revolution that installed the cleric-fascist regime of the Ayatollahs, and the country would today be a beacon of democracy enlightening what is instead a turbulent region. To describe such a view as “optimistic” is putting it mildly.
Let us deal, though, with things that are not in doubt. The British did get an exceptionally good deal in Iran when they signed the oil agreement with Reza Shah, the last Shah’s father, in 1933, and an existing Anglo-Persian treaty of 1919, concluded at a time when instability in the region was at its height after the fall of the Ottoman empire, had already secured a favoured-nation status for Britain with Iran.
But as Mossadegh himself was old and experienced enough to know (he was 70 at the time of the coup), successive Persian governments had kept Britain, then a world superpower, close after the Great War for very good reasons. Persia was then weak, and British involvement helped to provide not only military support but, for the ruling caste and its hangers-on at least, a serious degree of economic security too.
There is no question that the oil was useful, not just because the Royal Navy was in the process of changing from coal-powered to oil-fired ships, but because of the spread of the motor-car and its impact on economic growth in Britain. Equally, there is no question that British shareholders and taxpayers did exceptionally well out of the deal and that, as witnesses in Amirani’s film protest, the expatriates living their lives of exotic splendour treated almost all of the locals as “w-gs” who barely merited recognition. But this situation came about because Persia was a fractured despotism that was otherwise liable to implode into chaos decades before it actually did. Those familiar with modern stories of dissidents hanging from cranes and homosexuals being thrown off the roofs of tall buildings should pause to wonder whether things are so much better now.
There is no doubt that Mossadegh wanted to stop the exploitation of his fellow citizens by a foreign power in this way; and that he wished to get his hands on the oil money not for reasons of personal enrichment but in order to alleviate poverty among the mass of the Iranian people, and to improve their standard of living. However, in choosing simply to nationalise the British-owned industry there and expropriate it, rather than try to enter into a negotiation about its future, he made a catastrophic mistake.
The British all left the country, effectively thrown out by Mossadegh when he declared the country an enemy – and they took with them their technical expertise. They told anyone who bought oil from Iran that they were effectively buying stolen goods and would be “buying a lawsuit” too. In any case, oil production collapsed because the Iranians could not get it out of the ground. Other oil producers agreed not to come to the aid of Iran’s customers, and the Royal Navy enforced a blockade. Mossadegh soon had a substantial proportion of his own people baying for his blood, dissatisfied as they were by their new impoverishment.
Nor was he helped by the fact that the cowardly Shah and his wife, helped by the CIA, fled the country as tensions rose and holed up in the Excelsior hotel in Rome. This caused the Americans to fear that the communist-backed Tudeh party would soon take over the government, and make the country a client state of the Soviet Union, despite Mossadegh’s own detestation of communism. The prime minister was brought down and, despite demands that he be hanged, given three years in jail, followed by house arrest for the rest of his life. The Shah, greatly helped by Savak, the secret police, restored order, and with few niceties. The Americans and British had got their way.
Insufficient time was given in the programme to the Iranian clerical abandonment of Mossadegh, which deprived him of the support of the working class. Even if there had been no coup, there would have been no enlightened Iranian regime: the ayatollahs would have taken over 25 years earlier and the Middle East would still have erupted throughout the last 65 years, much as it has done.
The film seeks the usual, grandstanding, scapegoating narrative of the evil Americans, abetted by their British poodles, interfering out of naked self-interest and fouling up the world as a result. The first part of that contention may be true. Anyone with a half-decent grasp of recent history will see at once that the second part isn’t.