DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "Coup 53" tells the story of how, in 1953, Great Britain and the United States overthrew the elected prime minister of Iran. "Coup 53" will be available for online screening starting tomorrow, with tickets purchased through one of 300 local cinemas the filmmakers are supporting through the effort. You can find out how to watch at coup53.com.
Our critic-at-large John Powers highly recommends that you do. He says "Coup 53" isn't just important; it's as gripping as a spy novel.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since the late 1970s, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah and took 52 U.S. citizens hostage, our two nations have been at loggerheads. Watching decade after decade of mobs burning Old Glory on the streets of Tehran, many Americans have wondered why people in such a faraway country are so angry with the United States. For an answer, you couldn't do better than to start with "Coup 53," an exhilarating new historical documentary that unfolds with the pace and complexity of a thriller.
Co-directed by Taghi Amirani and renowned film editor Walter Murch, "Coup 53" tells the story of Operation Ajax, in which Britain's MI-6 and the American CIA engineered the forcible removal of Iran's elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Although many of us don't know much about this 1953 coup, its shockwaves rattle our history to this day.
"Coup 53" is structured a bit like one of those John le Carre spy novels in which George Smiley goes around talking to people to tease out who did what and when. We follow the likable Amirani over nearly a decade as he roots around for information, a quest that carries him from national security archives in D.C. and dusty basements in Paris, to glitzy apartments inhabited by moral monsters. Along the way, he talks to CIA operatives, historians, espionage experts, TV cameramen, victims of Mosaddegh's ouster, beneficiaries of his ouster and an array of ruling-class Brits who are simply staggering in their complacency, racism and entitlement.
What emerges first is the backstory of the coup, which like so much in the modern Middle East, is predicated on oil. Shortly after the black gold was discovered in early 20th-century Iran, a British oil company - now known as BP - locked up a sweetheart deal for its exploitation. Here, reporter and historian Stephen Kinzer explains what that meant, helped by a bit of testimony from a Brit who worked for the company.
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STEPHEN KINZER: Under the original agreement, only about 16% of the oil revenue was supposed to be given to Iran. But that 16% was going to be calculated by the British, and no Iranian would be allowed to look at the books. We now know, also, that the amount was calculated after the oil company paid its taxes. Now, the oil company was owned by the British government. So when it was paying taxes, it was essentially paying taxes to itself.
UNIDENTIFIED FORMER BP EMPLOYEE: We weren't handing over files. We weren't handing over accounts, which they asked us for. I said I had no authority to hand them the British company's accounts unless I was told from London.
KINZER: So it was a lot of creative accounting. But in the end, it was clear that almost all the money from this tremendous resource was going into Britain, and almost none was coming back to Iran.
POWERS: Naturally, Iranians resented this deal - and the British habit of treating them like animals. Mosaddegh was an erudite and charismatic Persian adored by the masses. And when he came to power, he nationalized the oil industry, expropriating the British oil company's assets. The outraged British decided to take Mosaddegh down. Though America was at first reluctant - Harry Truman got along with Mosaddegh - Dwight Eisenhower's team of Cold Warriors wrongly saw this nationalist conservative as a potential tool of Moscow. He had to go.
How that happens is the heart of the film, which paints a fascinatingly detailed picture of how, in practical terms, you go about toppling a popular foreign leader. It all starts with spreading around money and maybe arranging a couple of assassinations. The key figure in the operation was a mysterious MI6 agent named Norman Darbyshire who talked to the media only once for a TV series on the British Empire. But before it could air, the British government removed his interview from the program and sought to eliminate the transcript of his words.
But in "Coup 53's" big discovery, Amirani unearths a photocopy of the original transcript and reenact the interview with Ralph Fiennes brilliantly impersonating Darbyshire. For years, I thought the CIA was the prime mover of the coup, but I was wrong. Whether out of guilt or craftsman's pride, Darbyshire wanted the world to know the truth. He explains how he and the British choreographed the fall of Mosaddegh and blithely installed as prime minister the ghastly General Fazlollah Zahedi, a notorious black marketeer who'd conspired with the Nazis. Zahedi served at the whim of the then-young shah, whom the Americans considered gutless and spoiled but now backed to the hilt, even training his famously brutal secret police.
Britain and America had seemingly gotten what they wanted, including their cut of Iranian oil. But as "Coup 53" reminds us, history loves unintended consequences. Although the British ran the coup, the Americans immediately replaced them as the dominant foreign power in Iran. As for the shah, his harsh reign eventually spawned the Islamic Revolution, leading to more than 40 years of oppressive rule by mullahs who see the U.S., not Britain, as its prime enemy. Perhaps needless to say, they also took over Iran's oil industry - the reason for the coup in the first place.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new documentary "Coup 53."
On tomorrow's show, exposing the Hiroshima cover up - writer Lesley Blume tells the story of journalist John Hersey whose reporting in 1946 revealed the death, destruction and radiation poisoning from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima that U.S. military censors had kept under wraps. Her new book is called "Fallout." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support this week from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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