35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

COUP 53: New Documentary on Overthrow of Iran's Mosaddeq

Published: Aug 17, 2020
Briefing Book #717

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Film Uses Declassified Documents and Recently Recovered Interviews to Revisit Much-Debated Episode

MI6 Had Unwitting Part in Murder of Tehran Police Chief in Leadup to the Coup, According to Ex-Spy

Spoiler: Oscar Nominee Ralph Fiennes Fills in On-Screen for MI6 Operative Who Was Interviewed for, but Did Not Appear in, 1985 TV Documentary

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.


comparison of doc 1a and 1b


The Documents