From Iran in ’53 to the US in 2021: a history of US coup d’états that finally hits home
19 August marked the 70th anniversary of the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s first democratically elected political leader and prime minister. This overthrow was the first US-orchestrated coup d’état of the modern era and marked the beginning of decades of coups, assassinations and “regime change”. While the grim anniversary of that first coup in Iran generated little attention in the US, an attempted coup was front page news. This week, those charged in the case brought against Donald Trump and 18 accomplices for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia began turning themselves in to Georgia’s judicial authorities. This is the second indictment of former President Trump for attempting a coup against the United States following his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. While the violent mob called by Trump that stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C. nearly prevented the peaceful transfer of power, the violence perpetrated on 6 January 2021 does not compare to the amount of blood spilled in the countless US-sponsored interventions around the world.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was directly involved in the overthrow of Mossadegh. But it had more help. In 1953, the CIA was only six years old, while the British spy agency known as MI6 had been in existence for decades, had two world wars under its belt and had fomented various uprisings and plots around the world as Britain struggled to maintain its declining empire. In the 1950s, the British Empire’s vital resource was oil, which was pumped from the Iranian oilfields by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In 1951, tired of the country being plundered, the Iranian parliament decided to nationalise its oil industry. The initiative was led by Mohammad Mosaddegh, who shortly after was elected Iran’s prime minister. Mosaddegh held office for just over a year, while the US and the UK were conspiring to regain control of Iran’s oil.
The extent to which MI6 had a role in the CIA’s plot to overthrow Mossadegh was only revealed in 2019, when the notable documentary ‘Coup of ’53’ was released. The film, directed by Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-born physicist turned filmmaker, shows how an MI6 agent named Norman Darbyshire was the one who actually led the coup in Iran, information that was long kept secret.
Speaking to Democracy Now! Amirani said: “We all grew up with the idea that the CIA carried out the coup under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt”. Amirani is referring to Kermit Roosevelt, who was recruited by then CIA director Allen Dulles and his brother, then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, to be the Agency’s representative in the Iranian coup. Kermit Roosevelt, who was the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, gave numerous interviews, in which he practically bragged about having deposited a million dollars in Iran to finance the coup and spending only $60,000 to carry it out.
In his conversation with Democracy Now! Amirani elaborated: “Kermit was more of a man who brought money back and forth, an adventurer”. In contrast, in reference to MI6’s top agent in Iran, Amirani explained: “Darbyshire had been a soldier in Iran since he was 19. He probably spoke Persian better than I. He had walked the Iranian streets. He really understood the psyche of the Iranian groups, as he says in the interview that appears in our film. He knew how to address them, how to handle them, what strings to pull”.
Amirani’s research for the documentary “Coup of ’53” removed it and unearthed piles of extremely important information and materials that had been forgotten. Among these materials, he found the transcript of an interview that had been conducted with Darbyshire. When the first CIA-led coup attempt failed, groups of mercenaries hired by Darbyshire stormed the streets of Tehran city, surrounded Mossadegh’s house and, with the help of rebel army officers, attacked his home and arrested him.
The US and Britain then installed a puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as the new Shah of Iran. Pahlavi ruled for a quarter of a century and, under CIA supervision, created the SAVAK intelligence and its interior security service, a brutal Iranian state security apparatus that terrorised and murdered Iranian citizens who dared to voice opposition to the government. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution, ushering in the strict theocratic government that persists to this day.
Amirani’s research led him to seek information from the National Security Archive, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organisation that holds classified US government documents for the public to access. A key CIA document that the National Security Archive obtained in 2013 says: “The military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his Home Front cabinet was carried out at the direction of the CIA, as an act of U.S. foreign policy that was conceived and approved by the highest levels of government.”
In a harrowing video included in the documentary “Coup of ’53”, one can see a series of boxes lined up along the wall of the reading room of the National Security Archive containing documentation on the successive US-sponsored coups, coup attempts and military interventions that took place after the overthrow of Mossadegh: Arbenz (Guatemala, 1954), Lumumba (Congo, 1961), Trujillo (Dominican Republic, 1961), Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnam, 1963), Goulart (Brazil, 1964), Sukarno (Indonesia, 1965), Allende (Chile, 1973) and others, ranging from the invasion of Grenada in 1983 to the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, to the continuing attempts to overthrow the governments of Cuba and Venezuela and the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Let us hope that having to confront an attempted coup d’état at the local level, with the multiple prosecutions of Donald Trump and his co-defendants, will promote a profound reflection on our country’s violent record of planning coups abroad. Seventy years on from the Iranian coup, such self-criticism is arguably long overdue.