Coup 53: The Story of How Operation Ajax Killed a Nascent Iranian Democracy

Playing the game of What if…? with history is usually futile. But sometimes it yields valuable lessons. For instance, What if the CIA and MI6 had not orchestrated the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953? Consider one possibility – that Iran might have become a bastion of democracy and not what it is today, a threat to the interests of the U.S. and its allies and the biggest cause of instability in the Middle East.

Coup 53, an exciting, exhaustively researched docudrama about the joint effort to effect regime change in Iran, makes viewers ponder that question. The Americans called it Operation Ajax, the British Operation Boot. At its core, it was all about oil. But while the CIA formally admitted its role in the operation in 2013, declassified related documents, and even helped the Coup 53 team with information, the British still maintain silence.

The film is directed by Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-born physicist and documentary maker, and co-written and edited by Walter Murch, an Academy award winner famed for editing masterworks like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient. It also has Ralph Fiennes playing Norman Darbyshire, an MI6 spy who had boastfully admitted in an interview for the Iran segment of Channel 4’s 1985 docuseries End of Empire that he masterminded the op although the CIA was in formal control. The interview never made it to End of Empire and its transcript disappeared.

The ten years in Coup 53’s making were not without drama. The End of Empire team was initially very forthcoming with information, and in 2018, in a breakthrough for Amirani and Murch, cameraman Humphry Trevelyan recounted on three separate occaions an interview he recorded with Darbyshire. Meanwhile, Mosaddegh’s grandson had given Amirani a copy of the transcript, now at George Washington University’s National Security Archive. But in a remarkable turnabout, Trevelyan declared that his memory of filming Darbyshire was false, almost two years after his initial account, and after having congratulated the makers of Coup 53 at its 2019 European premier.  After its digital release in August 2020, the producers of End of Empire also threatened to sue Amirani and Murch, claiming Coup 53 defames them by suggesting they filmed Darbyshire, but could not use the interview due to pressure from the British government.

Some history, to get a perspective on the coup.

British and Soviet troops occupied Iran in 1941 to keep supply routes to the Soviet Union open, build a stronger base in the Middle East, and prevent the oil resources of Iran from falling into Axis hands. The then-monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was seen as pro-German, was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The troops left in 1946, after the war ended. The economy had deteriorated in the war years. To add to that, Iranian oil was controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), owned by the British government. All this seeded anti-Western sentiment among Iranians.

Like his father, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi manipulated elections to ensure he remained the de facto ruler. But in 1951, Mosaddegh, a staunch nationalist and democrat riding on the anti-colonial and anti-Western mood, was elected prime minister. Among his first decisions, very popular among Iranians and their elected representatives, was to nationalize AIOC, prompted by its refusal to submit to audits of royalty payments. This action jeopardized the U.K.’s oil supplies and economy. He also expelled foreign corporate representatives. The U.K. retaliated by organizing a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil, banning exports to Iran, and freezing Iranian accounts in British banks. Eventually, it was felt Mosaddegh must go.

But the Cold War was playing out, post the Truman Doctrine and the Berlin blockade. The Americans viewed Mosaddegh as a bulwark against communism. The Truman administration declined British requests for CIA assistance in toppling the prime minister. But after Dwight D. Eisenhower took over as U.S. president in 1953, Winston Churchill (in his second non-consecutive term) succeeded in enlisting American help in the coup. What might have helped was MI6-supplied evidence of the communist Tudeh party’s influence on Mosaddegh and hence Iran’s alleged vulnerability to Soviet ops.

With talking heads, animation, and records released by the CIA, Coup 53 brings to life Operation Ajax and the compelling story of a conflict between oil interests and a prime minister aspiring to bring financial independence and democracy to his country. Since Mosaddegh had also wanted to loosen the monarchy’s hold over Iran’s politics, the CIA and MI6 may have seen winning the Shah over and restoring him to power as an expedient play.

The coup was instigated in April 1953 with the kidnapping and murder of Mahmoud Afshartous, whom Mosaddegh had appointed police chief of Tehran. It was meant to destabilize the government and send a signal of encouragement to the anti-Mosaddegh forces. At that time, it was speculated that Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, a key rival of Mosaddegh, might be behind the abduction. But in the transcript, Darbyshire speaks of British involvement: he says the abduction was meant to “boost the morale of the opposition.” He regretted Afshartus’s death at the hands of a young officer after the police chief uttered a derogatory comment about the Shah.

He also speaks of convincing Princess Ashraf ol-Molouk Pahlavi, the Shah’s twin sister, to fly in from Paris to persuade her reluctant brother to support the coup. “We made it clear,” he says, “that we would pay expenses and when I produced a great wad of notes, her eyes alighted….” In her 1980 book, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, however, the princess said she was offered a blank check but refused it and went of her own accord.

Ultimately, a government under Gen. Zahedi was installed, allowing the shah to assume leadership of the monarchy. Declassified CIA records recount the staging of pro-shah riots and the transporting of protestors into the capital to foment violence and take over the streets. Iranian CIA agents posing as communists harassed religious leaders and bombed a clerics home in further efforts to turn the Islamic leadership against Mosaddegh. The prime minister was subsequently arrested, sentenced to jail, and placed under house arrest until his death in 1967.

The pro-Western Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, allowed British and American companies to raid his country’s oil supplies. He was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which made Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the supreme leader for ten years, marked by an eight-year-long war with Iraq, partly fueled by Saddam Hussein’s fears that government by Islamic clergy under shariah might spread to his country.  

But the operation had wider repercussions. Its low cost – $60,000, with no loss of lives – made an impression upon the American leadership, and led to the 1954 deposing of democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz; the 1963 coup d’état against Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem; the 1964 assassination of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba; and many similar CIA ops. In the long run, most of them – like Operation Ajax for Iran and the Western world – did not turn out well. The Dinh Diem coup, for instance, contributed in part to greater military involvement and therefore the loss of nearly 60,000 American lives in Vietnam. 

Towards the end, Coup 53 theorizes about the impact of the coup on Iran and its American perpetrators. An expert opines that had the U.S. and U.K. not engineered the coup, “We might have had a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Middle East.” Very plausible – which is why Amirani and Murch’s docudrama merits viewing and reflection.

Image: Picryl, via Wikimedia Commons // public domain

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