One of the United State’s longest conflicts has been with Iran, where
there’s been a deep hostility since the revolution of 1979. What is often
forgotten is the roots of that conflict go back to American actions, when in
1953 they drove a coup d’état to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The documentary Coup 53 is a absorbing account of that coup, and also a
meta-textual documentary about the making of the film itself.
It’s meta-textual element comes a mystery that came up during the research
for the documentary, a reference to an old interview with a British intelligence
agent that promised to shed a whole new light on the coup. This mystery, and
the journey to find the interview, helps
drive the documentary, adding an interesting spice to what otherwise would be a
straightforward historic narrative.
Not that the story of the coup needs any spicing up. The background and events of the
coup are pretty dramatic, and would make a riveting story alone. But I say that
as someone who’s always interested in history, and I can believe that the
mysterious interview adds drama that will engage a wider range of viewers.
The details of the coup is not widely known in the west, but important due to both its
consequences for the region and how it set the tone for the projection of US
power in the following decades.
To spoil the meta-narrative a little, the interview was with Norman
Darbyshire, who was a senior British intelligence officer in Iran. In his
interview he revealed a much deeper role that the British took in the coup.
Britain had long had a quasi-colonial role in Iran, in particular control of the
country’s oil. Mosaddegh had nationalized the oil industry, looking to increase
the previously paltry amount of oil wealth that flowed to the country. Most
accounts of the coup have it ran by the CIA, but Darbyshire revealed that it was
fact the British who planned and ran the coup, hence the importance of finding
The film of the interview was never found, so the director recreated it by
having actor Ralph Fiennes read Darbyshire’s words from the transcript they did
find. The film also uses animation, in a style that reminded me of the
outstanding Waltz with Bashir, to depict various
events during the coup.
This focus on Darbyshire’s account is understandable, but introduces a
problem that the filmmakers ignore – is he accurate? They do establish that he
was active in Iran at the time, but there’s no confirming evidence that he (and
Britain) played the leading role he describes. Although his account is
plausible, it’s equally plausible his ego is speaking, puffing up his own role
in the events.
The film’s reluctance to question its star, however, doesn’t undermine the
rest of the story. Whoever drove the plot, the basic facts of the coup remain.
Most notably is the price. Iran saw the loss of a leader who advocated an open
democratic society, and since then has been ruled by autocrats, a huge loss for
the Iranian people. America gained a
friendly brutal tyrant for 26 years, followed by a very unfriendly
brutal tyranny for over forty years. Furthermore, as the film points out, it
sent a signal to the Middle-East and the world that the United States was keen
on covert action to support friendly tyrants. They raise the prospect of an
alternative history where the United States dealt with Mosaddegh as a proper
ruler, perhaps encouraging a worthwhile democracy. What signal would that have
sent instead? And how different would the Middle East be with a strong
democratic Iran woven into a Western rules-based order?