Coup 53: how Britain thwarted democracy in Iran

Following the release of a new film detailing Britain and the US’s direction of the coup that removed Iran’s first democratically elected leader and imposed a brutal monarchy on the country, Navid Shomali analyses the putsch’s legacy

Britain was centrally and actively involved in planning and executing every aspect of the 1953 Coup to subvert democracy in Iran. The coup shaped not only Western relations with Iran for 60 years, but changed the Middle East.

Sixty-seven years ago, on August 19 1953, the anti-democratic CIA and MI6 orchestrated a coup d’etat in Iran which overthrew the democratically elected and popularly supported prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and returned the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power.

To date, mountains of articles, books, documents, and films have been published about this dark chapter in Iran’s history.

The ‘53 coup, in effect, suppressed democracy and undermined the process of democratic, fundamental reforms in Iran only to establish a brutal police state that ruled the nation for 25 years.

The vicious coup regime became the favoured regional gendarme in order to protect the political, economic, and military interests of the imperial powers such as the US and Britain in the Middle East. The adverse consequences of that coup are still keenly felt in Iran, as real civic and democratic foundations were never re-established there. And, today, another authoritarian and monopolist police state that seized power in 1979 is ruling the nation.

The 1953 coup was originally planned for August 16 but was defeated when members of the Tudeh Party of Iran (TPI) in the country’s military forces discovered the plot and informed Mossadegh. The Shah fled the country, firstly to Baghdad, and the coup perpetrators were arrested.

Although the TPI, a very popular party at the time with a broad organised presence across the country, frequently warned the government that the foreign powers and the reactionary elements of the monarchy had not aborted their plans for a coup, Mossadegh’s administration failed to act.

Thus, three days after the failed attempt, a second coup was executed on August 19 which succeeded in ousting the prime minister and seizing the government and military buildings and the radio stations.

General Fazlollah Zahedi declared himself as the new prime minister and the Shah flew back from Italy, where he had sought exile. Hundreds of suspected political activists, journalists, and workers were arrested, detained, tortured, and many were executed in the coming months.

The 1953 coup — codenamed Operation Boot by the British, and Operation Ajax by the US — was financed and orchestrated by the CIA and MI6 in partnership with local collaborators, with various objectives: to retaliate against Mossadegh’s nationalisation of the oil industry and regain control over Iran’s rich natural resources; to secure a protected zone against the Soviet Union in the north; and to suppress the progressive forces organised behind the Tudeh Party of Iran and various national-democrat parties, such as the National Front – all to secure a dependable and reliable base in the country in order to protect the interests of the imperialist powers.

Model for imperial intervention

As Professor Ervand Abrahamian wrote in The Coup (2013), the event also fostered an understanding among US politicians that it could easily be replicated in other countries too.

This coup crushed the “secular opposition” in Iran and laid the ground for the horrific systemic violence and suppression that followed for many years afterwards.

The great popular 1979 Revolution was quickly hijacked by the Islamist forces, mainly because there had been no democracy and no freedom of association and expression to allow progressive, left, or nationalist forces, or even labour unions, room in which to operate freely from the era of the coup regime onwards.

Only the Islamists benefited from the relative freedoms and spaces provided by mosques and other religious establishments and events to gather and organise people. The Islamist regime that took power after the revolution did the same to the progressive forces as the Shah and CIA-MI6 did to the social justice and national movement of Iran in 1953.

Indeed, in January of this year, the South African “Daily Maverick” published declassified files showing how Britain supported Iran’s new Islamist regime in crushing the last remaining opposition to its rule – particularly the TPI – in 1983 while Britain’s leading official in the country joked about Iran’s torture techniques.

Britain’s MI6 worked with the CIA to provide a list of alleged Soviet agents in Iran to Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime.

This information was used by the regime to round up and execute leading members of the TPI. The British files also highlight how at least one Foreign Office official considered how Britain might benefit from the forced confessions, extracted under torture, given by Tudeh members at the time.

MI6 operative’s transcript

In his research for documentary-film Coup 53 — released to coincide with the 67th anniversary — director Taghi Amirani discovered a transcript of an interview with Norman Darbyshire, one of MI6’s key operatives in Iran in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, along with additional material from an episode of the British ‘85 Granada Television series End of Empire.

The interview transcript was obtained from Mossadegh’s grandson, Hedayat Matin-Daftari. The National Security Archive, a non-governmental, non-profit research and archival institution based at George Washington University released this transcript online for the first time on August 17. In the interview, Darbyshire, who was involved in the overthrow of Mossadegh during the ‘53 Coup, gave a detailed disclosure of his role in the operation. However, despite its revelatory nature, Darbyshire’s account never made the final cut.

In his testimony, Darbyshire stated: “My brief was very simple, go out there, don’t inform the ambassador and use the intelligence service for any money you might need to secure the overthrow of Mossadegh by legal or quasi-legal means.”

Then a report, titled: “How MI6 and CIA joined forces to plot Iran coup,” appeared in the May 26 1985 edition of Britain’s Observer Sunday newspaper which revealed that: “[Darbyshire] had run a covert and violent operation to reinstate the Shah of Iran as ruler of the country in 1953.” This report was subsequently suppressed and Darbyshire’s interview was cut from the Granada TV series at the time. Apparently, using a state provision dubbed as a D Notice, the media were told not to follow up on the story.

As disclosed by the National Security Archive, Darbyshire, who spoke Farsi and French fluently, “covers a range of topics relating to Britain’s role in Iran and the coup in particular and he does so with a directness, not to say mordant wit.” The archive also provided numerous declassified CIA and other US records to the film’s creators.

Darbyshire openly admitted: “The actual running of the coup from our side was my responsibility.” He stated that he protected the coup leader, General Zahedi, “as he moved from house to house in Tehran” from August 16 — the date of first failed coup attempt — and the actual coup on August 19, owing to fears of Zahedi’s imminent arrest.

The irony — as it would turn out, a tragic one for the Iranian people — was that the British and US backers of the coup oversaw an operation in which General Zahedi came out on top.

This was the very same General Zahedi that had been detained by the Allies as a pro-Nazi figure in the apparatus of Reza Shah (the previous monarch ousted by the Allies in 1941) barely a decade beforehand.

Darbyshire claims: “Zahedi was suitable as a candidate because he had good standing in the army; we knew the Shah trusted him.”

Darbyshire is straightforward about Britain’s role in the kidnapping and murder of Tehran’s police chief, Mahmoud Afshartous, in April 1953. However, he claimed that murder was not the objective.

“Something went wrong. He was kidnapped and held in a cave […] Afshartous was unwise enough to make derogatory comments about the Shah […] The guard [a young army officer] pulled out the gun and shot him.”

On the financing of the coup, Darbyshire stated that “well over a £1.5 million” was spent. “The coup cost £700,000. I know because I spent it.

“The money was going via the Rashidian brothers to people to keep them sweet and see what they could do.”

Regarding the logistics of the coup’s operation, he stated: “The plan would have involved seizure of key points in the city [Tehran] by what[ever] units we thought were loyal to the Shah and possibly anti-Mossadegh, seizure of the radio station etc […] the classical plan.

“Once you start burning newspaper offices which are known to be pro-Mossadegh, the mob starts coming out and attacks the demonstrators […] It worked […] It was the Rashidian brothers who provided people to infiltrate the demonstrations.”

Bringing in the Americans

About collaboration with the US, Darbyshire stated: “The Americans have finally decided to come in […] Roosevelt had been to see Sinclair […] and he wasn’t convinced that we [the British] could do it alone. He had persuaded the CIA and thus the American administration that it was a good idea.”

Darbyshire calmly confirms to “a membership list of the Tudeh Party [of Iran] being discovered” and “that was when the great executions took place.” “Had we known how much they had infiltrated it would have been all the more reason to mount it [the coup] as quickly as possible… we knew that if they could infiltrate into the cabinet and into the army then you’ve got no control.”

In protecting their imperialist interests in Iran and the Middle East region, Britain and the US perpetrated a coup that totally cut the course of democratic development of Iran and deprived that nation of exercising their political will freely.

Iran is still suffering from that coup and the regime that followed – and is continuing to pay dearly for it under an authoritarian Islamist regime, the successors to that legacy.

As Amirani remarked: “Imagine if there had been a democracy there.”

Navid Shomali is secretary of the international department of the Tudeh Party of Iran and Liberation council member.

This article was first published in the Morning Star newspaper

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