Documentary on 1953 Iran coup exposes how US/UK overthrow democracy

By Paul Taylor

Coup 53 depicts with mesmerising pace and detail the Anglo-American, ‘Operation Ajax’, coup against the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, two years after he had nationalised the Iranian oil industry.

The documentary is required watching for those who want to understand how imperialism attempts to undermine governments and leaders who resist its demands.

Labour’s Cold War warrior and foreign secretary from 1945-51, Ernest Bevin, summarised perfectly the view of the British political establishment to empire: “if the British Empire fell….it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.”

Of course, with regard to Iran, there was more to it than that. 

On Britain’s part, the importance of the income from Iranian oil, combined with, the strategic significance of the country to Britain’s power in the Middle East, as well as the necessity of cheap oil to its naval global reach.

Of further concern, was the dangerous precedent it might set if the Iranians succeeded in controlling their own oil.

Decisive action was needed, pour encourager les autres, such as the Egyptians and their claims to the Suez Canal.

The United States seized upon Britain’s problems in Iran after 1945 to consolidate its newly acquired position as the global imperialist hegemon.

It too was inspired by a wish to control oil in the Middle East. It was also determined to prevent the Soviet Union from allying with anti-imperialist struggles for national self-determination.

Mosaddegh was neither a communist nor an anti-western leader.  But as with Nasser and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the problem for imperialism was his huge popularity, and his incorruptible determination to ensure his nation’s resources be used to raise the living standards of the people.

Coup 53 identifies the anger of Iranians with the looting of their country by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and its majority shareholder, the British government.

The figures are startling: “In 1947, [AIOC] Iranian operations gave the British Government £14.8 million in tax revenues and the Iranian Government £7.1 million in royalty payments, while the company’s net profits were £18.56 million. By 1950, the difference between HMG and Iranian earnings had risen to almost £35 million, with HM’s Treasury receiving £50.71 million and the Iranians £16.03, while the net profit had grown to £33.10 million.”

Coup 53 also highlights the deceitful accounting practices of the British to minimise the flow of oil wealth to Iran, and Britain’s secret pipeline to take oil, illegally and without payment, out of the country to British refineries in Iraq.

Coup 53 is at its most revealing when it lets the MI6 and CIA agents speak for themselves.

Not only does the director, Taghi Amirani, remind us of the value in watching the  series ‘End of Empire’ from 1985, he also succeeded in uncovering new testimonies; most notably, the key MI6 operative, Norman Darbyshire, whose confirmation of Britain’s involvement in the coup had been edited out from the ‘End of Empire’ programme and has not been acknowledged officially by the British government to this day.  

The testimony of MI6 and CIA operatives, and that of Iranians from the time, also highlights the disgusting levels of racism directed at the Iranians by British personnel at the Abadan oil refinery, and the shockingly opulent living standards of the latter compared to the appallingly low wages and living conditions of Iranian workers in the largest and most profitable enterprise in the country.

The Anglo-American coup was conducted with techniques that have become familiar: largely pioneered by Britain but also embraced and enhanced by the United States across the world.

Following the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company in 1951, Britain squeezed the Iranian economy by withdrawing the technical skills of British personnel and applying an international embargo on Iranian oil. “During the years 1952 & 1953 only 28 thousand barrels per day were produced on average, which was around 4 percent of the level of oil production which was achieved in 1950.”

The consequent economic crisis succeeded in its aim to weaken Mosaddegh by causing great suffering and instability in Iran.

CIA director Allen Dulles approved $1million for operations in Tehran aimed to help engineer the fall of Mosaddegh.

The assassination of Mahmoud Afshartous, the Iranian general and police chief, appointed by Mosaddegh, removed a powerful obstacle to the success of the coup plotters.

The Shah’s sister was bribed to encourage her indecisive brother to support the coup and give it a fig-leaf of constitutional legitimacy.

Newspaper editors in Tehran were also bribed. Stories with highly damaging lies about Mosaddegh, written by the CIA back in the United States were printed in Iranian newspapers without any edits.

As Stephen Kinzer describes it in his book “All the Shah’s Men”, “Decades of British intrigue in Iran, coupled with more recent work by the CIA gave him [CIA coup master Kim Roosevelt] excellent assets on the ground. Among them were a handful of experienced and highly resourceful Iranian operatives who had spent years assembling a clandestine network of sympathetic politicians, military officers, clergymen, newspaper editors, and street gang leaders.

The CIA was paying these operatives tens of thousands of dollars per month and they earned every cent. During the spring and summer of 1953, not a day passed without at least one CIA-subsidized mullah, news commentator, or politician denouncing Prime Minister Mosaddegh.”

The bribes also included many members of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, and ostensibly independent religious figures like the influential Ayatollah Kashani, who was paid $10,000 to support the coup.

In April 2000 the New York Times reported, “The C.I.A. stepped up the pressure. Iranian operatives pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim leaders with ”savage punishment if they opposed Mosaddegh,” seeking to stir anti-Communist sentiment in the religious community.

In addition, the secret history says, the house of at least one prominent Muslim was bombed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists.” 

Unhappily, these well-practiced techniques, and the newer ones, continue to mislead sections of the western left into supporting imperialism, as more recent events in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Hong Kong, Bolivia, and elsewhere have shown.

The role of mass protests in the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953 provides an important lesson for socialists:  neither the size of a demonstration nor its social composition automatically makes it progressive. Socialists should consider whose interests the crowd serves before deciding whether to support it or not.

Coup 53 also illustrates very well that Mosaddegh’s fall was not inevitable, and that correct political strategy and tactics, not just numbers and weapons, are critical for success in the class struggle.

Initially, Mosaddegh acted decisively by capturing the soldiers sent to arrest him.

But when the coup forces panicked, and the Shah fled to Rome, he did not deploy his forces both inside and outside the military, including the police, to arrest all of the coup plotters. To make matters even worse, he recalled most of the loyal troops he had posted around Tehran.

A day later, when an MI6 and CIA inspired mob marched to overthrow his government, Mosaddegh advised his supporters to stay at home. Mosaddegh’s fate was sealed.

A year later, the US overthrew Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. The CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, openly boasted that Ho Chi Minh was next.

However, history records that Kermit Roosevelt and US imperialism more than met their match. To the great benefit of humanity, communist Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people triumphed. 

Likewise, the Cuban revolution learned lessons from the coups in Iran and Guatemala and, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, applied those lessons successfully to defeat the US-backed Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow the revolution.

The lies, deception, and violence perpetrated by the US and British states against the people of Iran in 1953, and the undermining of democracy in the imperialist countries emphasises the importance, today, of defending people like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning.  

They are being punished in order to frighten other potential whistle-blowers and exposers of attacks on the sovereignty of other countries, from revealing the secrets of empire, whilst the information is contemporary enough to undermine imperialist plans to dominate whole countries and start wars of aggression based on lies.

In his book, “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq”, Stephen Kinzer, notes that, “Expansion presented the United States with the dilemma that has confronted many colonial powers. If it allowed democracy to flower in the countries it controlled, those nations would begin acting in accordance with their own interests rather than the interests of the United States, and American influence over them would diminish.”

The same of course applied to Britain.

Coup 53 represents much more than a powerful documentary about the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh sixty-seven years ago.

It also illuminates many of the big challenges we still face today as socialists and anti-imperialists.

The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders were partly inspired by the ruthless determination of the political establishments in both Britain and the USA to prevent leaders from coming to power, for the first time in their respective countries, who wanted to oppose western control of other countries through war, economic sabotage, and puppet regimes.

The fight to carry out an independent foreign policy of the workers and the oppressed of the imperialist countries, in unity with the workers and the oppressed of the semi-colonial world, is an indispensable part of the struggle for socialism. 

The Stop the War Coalition is hosting online screenings of Coup 53 till Wednesday 16 September – Tickets are available here.