Few events in modern Iranian history are as well-known as the 1953 coup d’état in which Britain and the United States helped bring down the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran.
Most historians have by now reached a consensus over the basic facts of the coup. It was planned by the American and British intelligence agencies and was carried out by an alliance of Iranian military commanders and clerics. But almost 70 years later, new details continue to surface. Just three years ago, for instance, the US finally declassified decades-old material shedding light on Britain’s pivotal role in propelling and planning the operation.
A new documentary, released last month to mark the 67th anniversary of the coup, has sparked public fallout in the United Kingdom. Taghi Amirani’s Coup 53 is based on 10 years of research by the Iranian-born filmmaker who left Iran for the UK when he was a teenager.
The film had its digital premiere on August 19, the day of the overthrow in 1953, and was received to great fanfare on both sides of the Atlantic: described as “riveting” by The Guardian and its findings as “remarkable” by the New York Times. It was edited by Walter Murch, the triple-Oscar-winning editor of such films as Apocalypse Now and The English Patient, and starred the British actor Ralph Fiennes of Schindler’s List and also The English Patient fame.
Now, however, Coup 53 has been pulled from all its digital platforms amid a “licensing issue” and heated allegations that one of its central claims is false.
A group of prominent British filmmakers say Coup 53 portrays their own coverage of the coup as having been subject to an MI6 cover-up in the 1980s, which they say was not the case at all. For his part, Amirani insists the film’s content is “fair and accurate” and “confidential discussions” are ongoing.
What Caused the Controversy?
In Coup 53, Ralph Fiennes is cast as a stand-in for Norman Darbyshire, the shadowy British MI6 agent who helped orchestrate the coup. As then-head of MI6’s “Persia” station in Cyprus, Darbyshire’s role in the coup has been attested to in academic publications since at least 2002.
This film’s new contribution is airing the agent’s own words, read out by Fiennes, from a little-known interview he gave to the producers of End of Empire: a 1985 documentary series by the British television company Granada, one episode of which focused on Iran. Fiennes, who also plays M, the head of MI6, in recent James Bond films, is brilliant as the nonchalant Darbyshire, reminiscing about the murder of Mossadegh’s police chief General Mahmoud Afshartous.
In the interview transcript, which has since been published in full by the National Security Archives, Darbyshire goes into exhaustive detail about the key role he had in planning the coup at different stages. For instance, asked whether he was “involved in Afshartous’ assassination”, he baldly states: “Yes. But it was never the intention that he should be killed. Something went wrong.”
The agent also boasts about helping to organize mobs against Mossadegh, adding that “it was the correct psychologically [sic] reading of the Persian mob character.”
Malcolm Byrne, a leading historian of Iranian-American relations and the coup of ‘53, has previously worked to help declassify the US documents as research director of the nonprofit National Security Archive. “I thought it was a great production,” he told IranWire. “The fascination with 1953 never goes away. It’s a great story and everybody comes up with something new.” Darbyshire’s interview, he said, was the film’s “main new bit of evidence”.
It was not the content of Darbyshire’s testimony that brought Amirani and Coup 53 to trouble, but how it was presented. A full 20 minutes of the film is given over to Amirani’s quest to discover a filmed interview with Darbyshire. Amirani’s search for Darbyshire is the main dramatic drive of the film. Unable to find the footage in the British Film Institute’s archives or on speaking to the team behind it, Amirani says he has been met with a “wall of silence and denial”.
Amirani insinuates that Darbyshire’s testimony was cut out of Granada’s original 1985 broadcast due to a request from MI6 and/or the British government. Its last title declares: “The location or existence of the original film of the Darbyshire interview is still unknown at this time.”
What is the Filmmakers’ Objection?
But did the British government really suppress a key interview from End of Empire, a major 1980s TV series? Absolutely not, according to the team that made it. In a statement, Alison Rooper, Mark Anderson and Norma Percy, who researched and produced End of Empire, assert that while Amirani’s film is “a good watch, a well-made and gripping film with an important story to tell”, the idea that they were censored in 1985 is “simply not true”. They also say that they told Amirani several times that Darbyshire never agreed to be interviewed on film.
“There is absolutely no evidence for any of these claims and we have asked Taghi [Amirani] and Walter Munch to remove them as they are false,” Alison Rooper told IranWire.
The End of Empire team says Darbyshire simply never agreed to an on-camera interview. Instead, the text given to Amirani and read out by Fiennes derives from an off-record, audio-only interview that Darbyshire only gave on the condition it would be “on background” and his real name would not be used.
Amirani’s claim in Coup 53 about the suppression of the interview only has one real source: Hedayat Matin Daftari, Mohammad Mossadegh’s grandson and a historical consultant to the 1985 documentary. In an interview for Coup 53, Daftari tells Amirani that at an early screening of the 1985 program, which first aired on Channel 4, British agents asked for the Darbyshire interview to be cut.
But the 87-year-old has already backed down from this claim. In a WhatsApp interview with correspondents.world, Daftari admitted his memory of events could have been flawed, writing: “I may not have been there. It was a long time ago.” Contacted by IranWire, Daftari repeated that he didn’t remember much of the events of 1985.
In the film, Amirani also cites an article in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, published at the time of the film’s release in 1985. The extract indirectly quotes from the Darbyshire interview. Amirani appears to assume, therefore, that some journalists must have seen an un-edited version of End of Empire in which the interview was shown.
But on closer inspection, the Observer article very clearly states “the MI6 man will not be seen as he declined to be filmed to protect his anonymity”. This is omitted in Amirani’s film, even as Amirani shows the original article to the camera and talks to the man who wrote it, Nigel Hawkes, who is unable to remember how he came by the text himself.
Finally, Amirani’s thesis of there having been a filmed interview with Darbyshire – one that was hushed up – is supported in Coup 53 by a discussion with End of Empire’s cameraman, Humphrey Trevelyan. In the film, Trevelyan claims to remember filming Darbyshire back in 1985 at London’s Savoy Hotel. But Trevelyan has already retracted the statement he gave in the film.
“I have recently written to Taghi Amirani to let him know that I have changed my views on the existence of a filmed interview with Norman Darbyshire,” Trevelyan told IranWire in an email exchange. “In view of the very detailed information that Alison and colleagues have provided in the last few weeks, It is clear to me that the interview that I recollected was in fact the one that was filmed with Sam Falle [another British diplomat whose interview footage appears in Coup 53].”
We Revealed Britain’s Masterminding the Coup First, Say Filmmakers
Alison Rooper, the main researcher of End of Empire, says the manner in which her own appearance on Coup 53 was cut misleadingly gives the impression that she is not really sure whether her team filmed Darbyshire or not. “I was shocked to see the way my words had been edited,” she told IranWire. “When I was filmed I had no idea the filmmakers were pursuing a thesis that we had filmed an interview with Norman Darbyshire. I was filmed for around 40 minutes in total. I told him several times that we’d never filmed Darbyshire.”
Watching Coup 53, one is left with the impression that End of Empire was censored as part of a cover-up of Britain’s role in the coup. But watching the actual 1985 documentary makes it apparent that this was far from the case. The very first comment broadcast in the documentary comes from Sir Donald Logan, a diplomat on the British Foreign Office’s Iran Desk from 1951 to 1953, who clearly states: “Our policy was to get rid of Mossadegh as soon as possible.”
The documentary is firm on the United Kingdom’s role in bringing down Mossadegh and, 35 years later, the filmmakers are still firm about it now. “Britain’s appalling role in the overthrow of Mossadegh is a story which must be told,” Rooper told IranWire.
Her former colleague Norma Percy added: “We object to the implication that we knew of the coup and suppressed the story. End of Empire was the first high-profile media to tell the story of MI6’s role in the coup, with witnesses.”
That is why, they say, they both enthusiastically collaborated with Taghi Amirani. Rooper says she corresponded with Amirani for years and even offered to help with fundraising for Coup 53 after viewing an early version of the film in 2017. The next year, she says, she was offered a position as a paid consultant, which she never took up.
Percy, meanwhile, says she wrote to the British Film Institute “strongly asking them to waive the large fees they were asking for Amirani to get access to the rushes [of the 1985 documentary]”. Brian Lapping, the executive producer of End of Empire, who Percy credits as having made the series as "a labor of love," wrote to BFI in 2016 asking it to waive the £550 fee per reel of End of Empire rushes.
Coup 53 also includes footage from 12 of the 22 interviews made by Rooper’s team, which Amirani obtained from the BFI. But there is no on-screen attribution for any of the clips – a fact that has disgruntled Percy and her team – and neither are they or Granada mentioned in the extensive “special thanks” section of the credits.
“We are surprised that he (Amirani) attacks our journalism, then goes on to use extracts of 12 of our 22 interviews,” Percy told IranWire. “In a program that made such extensive use, I would usually expect an on-screen caption mentioning End of Empire each time.”
Even now, though, Rooper says she remains “delighted” that Amirani’s film “is able to quote the words of Norman Darbyshire today, and that the filmmakers have found some very telling excerpts from our interviews.”
‘Wall of Silence’ Over Pulled Documentary
In mid-September, an email from the makers of Coup 53 was sent to the various platforms that had promoted the film online. “I have some sad news,” it read. “Due to an archive licensing issue that has been brought to our attention today, we must withdraw the film from all public screenings until the issue is resolved with the copyright holder.” On Twitter, the film’s promotional account said it would “be back soon due to popular demand.”
If the copyright dispute has to do with End of Empire, Percy and Rooper have no clue about it. They did not know the film had been taken down before speaking to IranWire. When contacted by IranWire with specific questions, Amirani said only that he had been engaging with the End of Empire team in “confidential discussions about the film... since late August.”
He added: “We continue to engage with them in good faith and do not wish to comment further at this stage, other than to say that we are entirely satisfied that the film is fair and accurate in all respects.”
Rooper and Percy acknowledged communication with Amirani and Munch and said they had given them “also some concrete suggestions as to how they can correct the film.”
In a jointly-signed email to IranWire, Rooper and Percy added: “We are hoping for an amicable resolution.”