This powerful and authoritative documentary by the Iranian film-maker Taghi Amirani is as gripping as any thriller. Coup 53 is about a vitally important historical event and horribly inglorious chapter in the postwar UK and US: the story of how, in 1953, Britain and the US teamed up to unseat the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – who had nationalised British oil interests – and replace him with the skittish, preening and very biddable Shah of Iran. This cataclysmic meddling was the Book of Genesis in the bible of dirty tricks.
The coup emboldened the British to try the same in Egypt against Gamal Abdel Nasser over the Suez canal, and their humiliation there taught them that this sort of thing could not be attempted without a green light from the real imperial power: the US. The triumph in Iran was treated by the US as the equivalent of cold fusion. A miraculous and apparently risk-free way had been discovered to assert American interests without warfare and boots on the ground. The Mosaddegh coup inspired them to destabilise governments all over the world. As for the British, the Iran coup was Britain’s last gasp of imperial power, yet the official position is that this was an American show, and it has faded from the collective memory. Amirani doesn’t mention it in his film, but Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow has revealed in his conversations with Tony Blair that it was plain the former prime minister had no idea who Mosaddegh was.
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, 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. Fiennes cleverly plays this amazing interviewee, as a kind of bluff Le Carré character. In fact, Amirani’s film is rather reliant on the footage from that documentary, with its parade of plummy-voiced British establishment fossils, urbanely conceding that they did chuck out the Persians’ tiresome democratically elected politician. But he also includes plenty of great interview footage of his own. If I had a criticism of this film, it is that – like so many historians of spies and spying – the director gets a little overexcited about the archive details. Still, what a riveting story: a grim curtain-raiser to today’s tragedies.
• This article was amended on 27 August 2020 to make clear that the suggestion UK authorities intervened to “cut” the Norman Darbyshire interview is the conclusion drawn by Coup 53; the producers of End of Empire maintain it was never intended for the MI6 agent to appear on camera.