The U.S. and Iran have had contentious relations ever since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s overthrowing the shah, and the subsequent hostage crisis — in which militants held 52 U.S. citizens for more than a year. Decades of scenes showing mobs burning the U.S. flag on the streets of Tehran have led many Americans to wonder why people in such a faraway country are so angry with the United States.
For an answer, you couldn’t do better than to start with Coup 53, an exhilarating new historical documentary that unfolds with the pace and complexity of a thriller.
Co-directed by Taghi Amirani and renowned film editor Walter Murch, Coup 53 tells the story of Operation Ajax, in which Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA engineered the forcible removal of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s elected prime minister. The shockwaves of this 1953 coup rattle our history to this day.
Coup 53 is structured a bit like one of those John Le Carré spy novels in which George Smiley goes around talking to people to tease out who did what and when. We follow the likable Amirani over nearly a decade as he roots around for information, a quest that carries him from national security archives in D.C. and dusty basements in Paris, to glitzy apartments inhabited by moral monsters. Along the way he talks to CIA operatives, historians, espionage experts, TV cameramen, victims of Mosaddegh’s ouster, beneficiaries of his ouster, and an array of ruling class Brits who are simply staggering in their complacency, racism and entitlement.
What emerges first is the backstory of the coup, which like so much in the modern Middle East is predicated on oil. Shortly after the black gold was discovered in early 20th century Iran, a British oil company now known as BP locked up a sweetheart deal for its exploitation. Iran not only got a mere 16% of the oil money before British taxes, but the books were kept by the British — and the Iranians weren’t allowed to see them.
Naturally, Iranians resented this deal — and the British habit of treating them like animals. Mosaddegh was an erudite and charismatic Persian adored by the masses, and when he came to power, he nationalized the oil industry, expropriating the British oil company’s assets.
The outraged British decided to take Mosaddegh down. Though America was at first reluctant — Harry Truman got along with Mosaddegh — Dwight Eisenhower’s team of Cold Warriors wrongly saw this nationalist conservative as a potential tool of Moscow. He had to go.
How that happens is the heart of the film, which paints a fascinatingly detailed picture of how, in practical terms, you go about toppling a popular foreign leader. It all starts with spreading around money and maybe arranging a couple of assassinations. The key figure in the operation was a mysterious MI6 agent named Norman Darbyshire who talked to the media only once — for a TV series on the British Empire. But before it could air, the British government removed his interview from the program and sought to eliminate the transcript of his words.
But in Coup 53‘s big discovery, Amirani unearths a photocopy of the original transcript and reenacts the interview with Ralph Fiennes brilliantly impersonating Darbyshire. For years, I thought the CIA was the prime mover of the coup, but I was wrong. Whether out of guilt or craftsman’s pride, Darbyshire wanted the world to know the truth. He explains how he and the British choreographed the fall of Mosaddegh and blithely installed as prime minister the ghastly Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi — a notorious black marketeer who was believed to have conspired with the Nazis. Zahedi served at the whim of the then-young shah, whom the Americans considered gutless and spoiled but now backed to the hilt, even training his famously brutal secret police.
Britain and America had seemingly gotten what they wanted, including their cut of Iranian oil. But as Coup 53 reminds us, history loves unintended consequences. Although the British ran the coup, the Americans immediately replaced them as the dominant foreign power in Iran. As for the shah, his harsh reign eventually spawned the Islamic Revolution, leading to more than 40 years of oppressive rule by mullahs who see the U.S., not Britain, as its prime enemy. Perhaps needless to say, they also took over Iran’s oil industry — the reason for the coup in the first place.