Documentary review: COUP 53
by Ian Sinclair
13 August 2020
Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Noam Chomsky explained “the West has an extremely ugly history” in the Middle East. We may not pay attention to this history, the US dissident noted, but the people in the region negatively impacted by Western military and economic interference don’t forget.
A good example of Chomsky’s truism is the 1953 coup in Iran, the subject of Taghi Amirani’s brilliant new documentary. After Iran’s parliament voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, the CIA and MI6 played a leading, covert role in toppling Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, installing the autocratic Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.
Much like the best political thrillers, the film has a real momentum. It is anchored around newly discovered testimony from MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire, found after some serious detective work by Amirani. Interviewed for Granada Television’s epic 1985 documentary series End of Empire, Darbyshire’s firsthand memories were mysteriously missing when the programme was broadcast on television. However, the transcript of his interview survived. And from this we find Darbyshire, suavely played by actor Ralph Feinnes, admitting to being involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Iranian police chief and, more broadly, confirming the UK’s central role in the coup – a historical fact which has never been officially recognised by the UK state.
As well as interviews with US and UK experts such as intelligence specialist Stephen Dorril and Stephen Kinzer, author of the 2003 book All The Shah’s Men, the film includes fascinating testimony from key members of Mossadeq’s inner circle and other Iranians involved at the time. Look out, too, for some innovative and effective animation telling key parts of the story.
With events involving President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, oil and corporate interests, a nefarious BBC and the British secret services, Kinzer is surely right to argue the coup was “a decisive historic episode” of the twentieth century that deserves to be much better known.
The coup strengthened the voices of those in the US government pushing for more US covert action (e.g. Guatemala in 1954). More importantly, it wrecked attempts to build a more democratic Iran. “As a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, a terrible dictator”, US Senator Bernie Sanders educated viewers during a 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate. “And as a result of that you had the  Iranian revolution”.
COUP 53 is being screened online on 19 August, the 67th anniversary of the coup. Visit https://coup53.com/screenings/ to buy a ticket.