Washington, D.C., August 17, 2020 – Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service – MI6 – took part in the 1953 kidnapping of the chief of police of Tehran, Iran, according to a recently recovered interview of an ex-MI6 operative that is featured in a new documentary film, COUP 53. The full interview transcript is posted today for the first time by the National Security Archive.
Norman Darbyshire, who helped plan the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq on August 19, 1953, made the disclosure about the kidnapping in an interview for the Granada Television series End of Empire that aired in 1985. But Darbyshire’s account never made it into the series.
The interview transcript disappeared for more than three decades until it was obtained – from Mosaddeq’s grandson – by COUP 53 director Taghi Amirani.
The film, edited by Academy Award-winner Walter Murch and featuring a cameo by Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes, explores the coup on several levels, including its tortuous historiography. The Archive provided numerous declassified CIA and other American records to the film’s creators.
The British government’s decades-long refusal to open its own official record of the operation has significantly impeded historians’ attempts to unearth the full story, which consequently heightens the interest level of materials like Darbyshire’s candid recollections.
COUP 53 airs online across the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Ireland on August 19.
Coup 53 film official teaser. CLICK HERE for tickets to watch on August 19.
The abduction of Tehran police chief Mahmoud Afshartous was a major event in April 1953, coming at a time of political upheaval in the country. Rumors abounded about the perpetrators, many pointing to key rivals of Mosaddeq, including Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi who replaced him as prime minister after the coup. Whoever carried it out directly, Darbyshire is blunt about Britain’s role. Asked: “Were you involved in [the] Afshartus assassination?” he replies: “Yes.”
The ex-agent does, however, go on to say that murder was not the objective. “Something went wrong; he was kidnapped and held in a cave.” Under guard by a “young army officer,” Afshartous “was unwise enough to make derogatory comments about the Shah … and the young officer pulled out a gun and shot him.” Darbyshire insisted the point of the abduction was “to boost the morale of the opposition” to Mosaddeq and that his death “didn’t help.”
This account has its skeptics. Stephen Dorril wrote about the kidnapping in his book MI6 (The Free Press, 2000). He unquestionably had a copy of Darbyshire’s interview because he quotes directly from it several times, though he never identifies it in his endnotes. Dorril’s view is that the murder must have been intended, otherwise “it is hard to see how Mossadeq’s supporters could have received the right message.” (p. 586)
The 14-page transcript posted below – and of course the film – have numerous other points of interest. A notable example is Darbyshire’s attempt to persuade the Shah’s sister, Princess Ashraf, to fly from Paris to Tehran to talk the reluctant monarch into supporting the coup. As Darbyshire recounts it, “We made it clear that we would pay expenses and when I produced a great wad of notes, her eyes alighted …”
Scholars’ and journalists’ attempts to write the history of Mosaddeq’s overthrow have been severely hampered over the years by officially sanctioned document destruction and the continued blanket classification of significant portions of the written record – including virtually everything from the British side. These realities heighten the value of any new documents that can provide insight into London’s actions during the coup.
This transcript of an interview with Norman Darbyshire, one of MI6’s key operatives in Iran in the 1940s and early 1950s, was discovered, along with additional material from the Granada Television series End of Empire, by the makers of the documentary COUP 53 in the possession of Mosaddeq’s grandson, Hedayat Matine-Daftary, who turned it over to the project.
What helps make this item noteworthy is the near-total lack of publicly available official records on Britain’s role during the oil nationalization crisis starting in 1951. Closing in on 70 years after the fact, authorities continue to withhold archival records about the coup. (The Americans in 2017 published what will probably be the last significant official release of their records, although more are known to still be classified.)
Darbyshire covers a range of topics relating to Britain’s role in Iran and the coup in particular and he does so with a directness, not to say mordant wit, that reveals his colorful character. As for candor, the following description of certain British attitudes is characteristic: “the AIOC [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] were … ex-patriots who called anyone west of Calais a wog and to them Iranians were wogs. The fact that they had just as qualified engineers and chemists as the AIOC was irrelevant; the Persians were not allowed to be members of the ‘Club’.”
The transcript itself is roughly typed with innumerable typos and other problems; even the subject’s name is misspelled. It was for the internal use of the series’ producers to help decide which passages to use in the film.
This posting consists of two versions of the transcript. Document 1A is “uncut” and Document 1B shows where segments chosen for inclusion were – in the days before computerized editing – physically cut out of the paper copy and pasted onto a working script. The reason for including both is that the uncut version does not include Darbyshire’s name, whereas the cut version does. The producers evidently provided a copy to journalists but were wary of revealing Darbyshire’s name and whited it out throughout the transcript.