AN ARMY coup, organised by the British, overthrew the elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 and increased the hold of their puppet, the Shah, and the army.
No British government has ever admitted our complicity but the MI6 officer who ran the coup, Norman Darbyshire, told TV journalists he suborned members of Iran’s parliament among others with money hidden inside biscuit tins and an army officer with two pounds of Lipton tea, to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh
“The plan would have involved seizure of key points in the city by what units we thought were loyal to the Shah … seizure of the radio station etc … the classical plan,” recalled Norman Darbyshire, the head of MI6’s Persia station in Cyprus at the time of the coup.
Darbyshire gave his version of events in an off-record interview with the makers of Granada TV’s 1985 film End of Empire: Iran. As he refused to appear on camera, the interview was not used and the transcript was lost until now.
It will now be used in new documentary, Coup 53, due to be released on Wednesday. Ralph Fiennes plays Darbyshire, who died in 1993.
Mossadegh angered the British establishment when he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – now called BP – after the company refused to co-operate with the government. Three years later Britain manufactured the Suez War because President Nasser of Egypt nationalised ‘our’ Suez Canal.
According to Darbyshire, the main reason MI6 wanted to get rid of Mossadegh was that they believed his government, though it only had a single member of the communist party, would ultimately be taken over by communists and fall under the influence of the Soviet Union rather than Britain and America.
The retired spook said: “Once you get highly trained members of the communist party in, it doesn’t take long. ”
In 1951 the UK’s deputy prime minister, Anthony Eden, sent an academic and wartime spy, Robert Zaehner, to try to oust Mossadegh by bribing members of the Iranian parliament and other prominent citizens.
“Vast sums of money were being spent,” Darbyshire said. “He used to carry biscuit tins with damn great notes. I think he spent well over a million and a half pounds.”
Zaehner’s attempt failed and he left the country, leaving Darbyshire to plot a more violent alternative, which he insisted ended up costing his government less. “The coup cost £700,000. I know because I spent it,” he claimed.
The British spy also claimed credit for recruiting a pro-shah general, Fazlollah Zahedi, to lead the coup and replace Mossadegh’s as prime minister.
Darbyshire’s plotting was interrupted in October 1952 when Mossadegh severed relations with the UK and expelled its diplomats and spies.
Darbyshire left with his coup plans in his pocket and presented them to the CIA in Beirut. But the CIA was not yet interested, and the MI6 leadership was not prepared to move without the Americans, rather to Darbyshire’s disdain.
“In the early months of 53 we were building up and we thought we had enough military units to mount something, but London started getting cold feet,” he told his interviewer.
“Unfortunately, the head of SIS at the time, General [John] Sinclair knew about as much of the Middle East as a 10-year-old (far more interested in cricket anyway)” he added
The US position only changed after Dwight Eisenhower became President 1953.
Darbyshire admitted he organised the abduction of Mossadegh’s chief of police, General Mahmoud Afshartous, in April 1953, but insisted it was never intended that he be killed – a murder that fuelled the instability leading up to the coup
“Something went wrong: he was kidnapped and held in a cave,” he said. “Feelings ran very high and Afshartous was unwise enough to make derogatory comments about the shah.
“He was under guard by a young army officer and the young officer pulled out a gun and shot him. That was never part of our programme at all but that’s how it happened,” Darbyshire claimed.
After a few false starts, the coup succeeded. Mossadegh was put on trial and kept under house arrest until his death 14 years later.
According to Darbyshire, Mossadegh fate was sealed the moment he took office. “They would have wanted to oust him regardless of whether he would have signed an agreement favourable to the British,” he said
“Eventually they would have been forced to have considered getting rid of him to prevent a Russian takeover. I am convinced that was on the cards.”
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