Tomorrow, it will be exactly 67 years since the coup in Iran which overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. It has long been known that the UK’s MI6 and the US’ CIA orchestrated the coup, but for the first time a first-hand account has come to light, one which shines a spotlight on the key role played by the British Government in the events.
Norman Darbyshire, the head of MI6’s Persia station in Cyprus at the time of the coup, gave an off-record interview with Granada TV in 1985 for a programme on Iran. He refused to appear on camera so none of the material was ever used, and it has been gathering dust until it was discovered in research for a new documentary on Mossadegh, due to be released tomorrow. Darbyshire, who died in 1993, will be dramatised by Ralph Fiennes in the documentary.
The full transcript of Darbyshire’s interview was published on Monday, you can read it here. What he reveals is that in 1951, Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary and future Prime Minister, dispatched war-time spy and academic Robert Zaehner to get rid of Mossadegh by bribing Iranian politicians with “vast sums of money”.
“He used to carry biscuit tins with damn great notes. I think he spent well over a million and a half pounds,” Darbyshire states.
Zaehner’s efforts failed, and Darbyshire took charge, plotting an armed overthrow of Mossadegh instead of bribes. The Foreign Office was still directing affairs, with Winston Churchill taking over when Eden was ill. Darbyshire recruited a wealthy family, the Rashidians, who would build support for the coup and act as a go-between with the Shah (the monarch), who’s support was critical for the coup to go ahead.
Darbyshire’s account suggests he was pushing against an open-door, with Mossadegh’s reforming government increasingly seen as a “threat” among wealthy elites in Iran. Mossadegh nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP), peasants were freed from forced labour, and a Land Reform Act was passed forcing landowners to pass 20 per cent of revenues over to tenants. The MI6 spy claims a key motivation for London was fear that Mossadegh would eventually fall under the influence of the Soviet Union, even though the US were telling him at the time that the Iranian Prime Minister was a “bulwark” against soviet influence. Nonetheless, Darbyshire confirms that the Americans “wanted a special position over Iranian oil”.
Darbyshire recruited an army general, Fazlollah Zahedi, who was lined up to replace Mossadegh in the event the coup went ahead. It was delayed because of lack of support in Washington, with Eden getting “cold feet” about moving independently. But when former US general Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, they got the agreement from the US and from the Shah. Mossadegh was placed under house arrest for 14 years, until he died, and Zahedi installed as the Shah’s prime minister.
“The coup cost £700,000. I know because I spent it,” Darbyshire says.
The Shah’s brutal pro-western dictatorship ended in the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the current Islamic Republic of Iran, in which the US and UK has less influence than they do in the days of Mossadegh. Such are the twists of history. But Darbyshire’s first-hand account is still worth highlighting, because Britain – unlike the US – has never publicly acknowledged, never mind apologised for, it’s role in the coup. Zero accountability. Britain’s history of coup-making extends well into the post-Empire era, and even today, despite being firmly in America’s shadow, it continues to use it’s huge international influence to interfere in other country’s affairs to secure its own interests.
The story of Mossadegh’s down-fall should be kept in mind the next time the UK talks up the imperative of foreign intervention, or indeeds backs the overthrow of a democratically elected government, as it did when it recognised the unelected Jeanine Áñez as the President of Bolivia after the coup which ousted President Evo Morales. Claims that the left-wing leader rigged last year’s Bolivian election last year turned out to be false. Of course, we only find out the details about the role of imperial powers in these affairs years later, when the political heat has been taken out of the issue and most of the principal actors are retired or dead, as is the case with the Mossadegh revelations. The onus is on citizens to hold the state to account for the crimes of the past, perpetrated in our name.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.