Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilizatrice.
One specifically American contribution to the discourse of empire is the specialized jargon of policy expertise. You don’t need Arabic or Persian or even French to pontificate about how the democracy domino effect is just what the Arab world needs. Combative and woefully ignorant policy experts, whose world experience is limited to the Beltway, grind out books on “terrorism” and liberalism, or about Islamic fundamentalism and American foreign policy, or about the end of history, all of it vying for attention and influence quite without regard for truthfulness or reflection or real knowledge. What matters is how efficient and resourceful it sounds, and who might go for it, as it were. The worst aspect of this essentializing stuff is that human suffering in all its density and pain is spirited away. Memory and with it the historical past are effaced as in the common, dismissively contemptuous American phrase, “you’re history.” — Edward Said †
When democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, took the fateful decision to nationalise his nation’s oil reserves, thus depriving BP – known then as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – of its primary revenue stream, the West quickly retaliated, first with sanctions and then with a full-fledged colour revolution and coup carried out in 1953 to ouster Mosaddegh and usher in a quarter century-long brutal dictatorship and repressive police state under the Shah.
The American role in what was codenamed Operation Ajax is comparatively well documented and those familiar with the story will already be aware of the central role played by Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, who afterwards wrote a book entitled Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran in which he described how he and the CIA carried out their operation. By contrast, far fewer details are known about British involvement.
A Radio 4 documentary broadcast in 2005 finally revealed evidence that not only was the BBC World Service prominent in a campaign to flood Iran with anti-government propaganda, but also disclosed how the World Service is directly implicated in the coup by signalling British support to the Shah. As notes on the BBC website state:
“Even the BBC was used to spearhead Britain’s propaganda campaign. In fact, Auntie agreed to broadcast the very code word that was to spark revolution.” 1
Curiously, the BBC has since refused to comment on its own disclosure!
The pivotal role played by MI6 remains to this day a very closely-guarded secret, however in a newly released documentary Coup 53, British-Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani has managed to piece together fragments to tell the story of one British secret service officer called Norman Darbyshire – a man whose existence had been almost entirely erased from history:
Coup 53 is the result of years of sleuthing from Amirani, and he has been helped by the legendary editor and sound editor Walter Murch, who is co-writer. Also on board is actor Ralph Fiennes. In a dramatic reconstruction, he plays real-life MI6 agent Norman Derbyshire [sic], who in 1985 gave an interview to the Granada TV documentary End of Empire in which he rashly asserted that the whole thing was effectively being run by the British – by him, in fact. Coup 53 concludes that his appearance was cut at MI6’s insistence but the transcript survived. 2
Click here to read the full Guardian review by Peter Bradshaw.
Although centred around redacted transcripts from just a single television interview, Coup 53 is a quite brilliantly constructed and important documentary, which by the end leaves the audience to consider what might have been had the plot to remove Mosaddegh failed – as it so very nearly did. Besides a more hopeful future in a Middle East with Iran permitted to develop as an affluent, democratic and progressive power, it also seems unlikely, as the film intimates, that the CIA would have gone on so avidly to pursue future campaigns of destabilisation beginning with the toppling of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala the very next year.
Embedded below is George Monbiot’s short guide to why everything you know about the British Empire is a lie:
Instead, the imperialist success of the Iranian coup simply marked the passing of the baton from the British establishment more firmly into American hands with the major difference in the running the empire owing much to differences of national character: the British eager to hide their dirty secrets to the extent of completely erasing the historical record (and the main Wikipedia entry still makes little mention of Norman Darbyshire) while the Americans appear happier to brag.
In January 2020, Codepink’s Jodie Evans spoke with Taghi Amirani shortly after the original release of the Coup 53:
In the original post I incorrectly wrote Norman Derbyshire rather than Darbyshire (the same mistake appears in the Guardian review) and wrote that “the main Wikipedia entry still makes no mention of Norman Derbyshire”. If you search the current Wikipedia entry you will however find the following inclusion (with all links and footnotes retained):
Robert Zaehner alone spent over a £1,500,000, smuggled in biscuit tins, to bribe Iranians, and later his colleague Norman Darbyshire admitted that the actual coup cost the British government a further £700,000.They hoped to fill the Majlis with deputies who would vote to depose Mosaddegh. It would be a coup carried out by seemingly legal means.”:135
Although not linked from this article, there is also a separate entry for Norman Darbyshire that read as follows (again with links retained):
Norman Darbyshire (1 October 1924 – 17 June 1993) was the British MI6 operative who led the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. Credit and blame for the coup has long been attributed solely to the United States CIA, while the dominant role of the British, and MI6 operative Darbyshire in particular, has been hidden. Among other things, he was involved in the kidnapping, torture, and assassination of General Mahmoud Afshartous, Mossadegh’s chief of police, and bribed the twin sister of Shah Reza Pahlavi to play a key role in the coup and to eventually become a power behind his resulting dictatorship.
Darbyshire died in 1993, aged 68.
In the 2019 documentary Coup 53 by the British-Iranian film-maker Taghi Amirani about the 1953 Iranian coup d’état – in USA, the coup was known as Operation Ajax, while in Britain it was Operation Boot – actor Ralph Fiennes plays the part of Darbyshire.
† Quote taken from the 2003 Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition of Orientalism by Edward Said, first published in 1978. https://www.princeton.edu/~paw/web_exclusives/plus/plus_110503orient.html
1 From BBC notes to Document: A Very British Coup broadcast on Monday August 22, 2005. Even the BBC was used to spearhead Britain’s propaganda campaign. In fact, Auntie agreed to broadcast the very code word that was to spark revolution. https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/document/document_20050822.shtml
2 From an article entitled “Coup 53 review – riveting documentary on a very British coup” written by Peter Bradshaw, published in the Guardian on August 20, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/aug/20/coup-53-review