30 August 2020
One of the United State's longest conflicts has been with Iran, where there's been a deep hostility since the revolution of 1979. What is often forgotten is the roots of that conflict go back to American actions, when in 1953 they drove a coup d'état to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The documentary Coup 53 is a absorbing account of that coup, and also a meta-textual documentary about the making of the film itself.
It's meta-textual element comes a mystery that came up during the research for the documentary, a reference to an old interview with a British intelligence agent that promised to shed a whole new light on the coup. This mystery, and the journey to find the interview, helps drive the documentary, adding an interesting spice to what otherwise would be a straightforward historic narrative.
Not that the story of the coup needs any spicing up. The background and events of the coup are pretty dramatic, and would make a riveting story alone. But I say that as someone who's always interested in history, and I can believe that the mysterious interview adds drama that will engage a wider range of viewers. The details of the coup is not widely known in the west, but important due to both its consequences for the region and how it set the tone for the projection of US power in the following decades.
To spoil the meta-narrative a little, the interview was with Norman Darbyshire, who was a senior British intelligence officer in Iran. In his interview he revealed a much deeper role that the British took in the coup. Britain had long had a quasi-colonial role in Iran, in particular control of the country's oil. Mosaddegh had nationalized the oil industry, looking to increase the previously paltry amount of oil wealth that flowed to the country. Most accounts of the coup have it ran by the CIA, but Darbyshire revealed that it was fact the British who planned and ran the coup, hence the importance of finding the interview.
The film of the interview was never found, so the director recreated it by having actor Ralph Fiennes read Darbyshire's words from the transcript they did find. The film also uses animation, in a style that reminded me of the outstanding Waltz with Bashir, to depict various events during the coup.
This focus on Darbyshire's account is understandable, but introduces a problem that the filmmakers ignore - is he accurate? They do establish that he was active in Iran at the time, but there's no confirming evidence that he (and Britain) played the leading role he describes. Although his account is plausible, it's equally plausible his ego is speaking, puffing up his own role in the events.
The film's reluctance to question its star, however, doesn't undermine the rest of the story. Whoever drove the plot, the basic facts of the coup remain. Most notably is the price. Iran saw the loss of a leader who advocated an open democratic society, and since then has been ruled by autocrats, a huge loss for the Iranian people. America gained a friendly brutal tyrant for 26 years, followed by a very unfriendly brutal tyranny for over forty years. Furthermore, as the film points out, it sent a signal to the Middle-East and the world that the United States was keen on covert action to support friendly tyrants. They raise the prospect of an alternative history where the United States dealt with Mosaddegh as a proper ruler, perhaps encouraging a worthwhile democracy. What signal would that have sent instead? And how different would the Middle East be with a strong democratic Iran woven into a Western rules-based order?