Unearthed interview reveals story behind Britain's $26 million Iranian coup plot

Unearthed interview reveals story behind Britain's $26 million Iranian coup plot
An interview with a British spy involved in the 1953 coup has been unearthed as Iran marks the 67th anniversary of the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh.
3 min read
19 August, 2020
The coup was plotted by the CIA and MI6 spy agencies [Getty]
The UK's spy agency spent $26 million on the 1953 coup that led to the ousting of Iran's Mohammad Mosaddegh, a newly uncovered first-hand account has revealed.

MI6 spent £700,000 - roughly £19.6 million ($26 million) in today's money - planning and carrying out the coup plot, top spy Norman Darbyshire said in a previously unseen 1985 interview.

The transcript of the interview with Darbyshire, who was head of MI6's Persia station in Cyprus at the time of the coup, is the first instance of a UK government official explicitly admitting to the country's involvement in Mosaddegh's overthrow.

Darbyshire spoke to Granada TV for a 1985 film about the coup but ultimately refused to appear on television, meaning the interview remained under wraps until it was discovered in the archives by the producers of a new documentary, 'Coup 53', to be released on Wednesday.

Wednesday marks the 67th anniversary of the coup, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup.

Among Mosaddegh's first acts as prime minister was to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a move that infuriated the British government.

The key motive behind the coup was to stop Iran becoming falling under the influence of the Soviet Union however, Darbyshire said according to The Guardian.

"I really do believe it because Mossadegh was a fairly weak character" who would be overwhelmed by Soviet influence, the former spy who died in 1993 said.

The UK was instrumental in orchestrating the coup, Darbyshire told Granada TV.

In fact, MI6 had to persuade the US to take part in the initiative as the American government initially believed Mosaddegh was a "bulwark against communism", Darbyshire said.

In 1951, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden dispatched wartime spy Robert Zaehner to Iran with "vast sums of money" in an attempt to bribe Iranian lawmakers to oust Mosaddegh, Darbyshire said.

The attempt at bribery - spending "well over a million and a half pounds" or more than £42 million ($56 million) in today's money - failed, leading MI6 to change plans.

Darbyshire himself spent less money - £700,000 at the time - during the buildup to the putsch, recruiting conspirators and buying intelligence. 

The spy also claimed the credit for recruiting Fazlollah Zahedi, a top general and supporter of the shah who would go on to take Mosaddegh's place in the new regime that lasted from 1953 until the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"A coup is necessarily predicated on the use of armed force," Darbyshire said. "Zahedi was suitable as a candidate because he had good standing. We knew the shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] trusted him."

Ultimately, Darbyshire's plotting came to an end in 1952 when Mosaddegh cut ties with the UK.

It was then when the British spies began trying to persuade their American counterparts to get involved in the coup plot. MI6 did not want to move forward without CIA involvement, Darbyshire said.

The British spy agency wasn't able to persuade the CIA until Dwight Eisenhower took power in January 1953.

The teamed-up agencies then had to persuade the shah to endorse the plot, an effort ultimately achieved with the help of his sister Ashraf. 

The coup eventually took place on August 19 1953, with the shah signing decrees to dismiss Mosaddegh and appoint Zahedi in his place.

Mosadeggh was later put under house arrest until he died in 1967.

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