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British spy: UK bribed officials ahead of 1953 Iran coup

The UK recruited agents and bribed members of the Iranian parliament in an effort to encourage them to take part in the 1953 coup which overthrew the elected prime minister and restored the shah, an unaired interview with an ex-British spy has revealed.

The transcript of the unaired interview with former British spy Norman Darbyshire, who was MI6’s chief of the Persian division, laid bare the lengths the UK went to in order to keep hold of the oil fields and destroy Soviet influence on Iran, after former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil fields.

“The plan would have involved seizure of key points in the city by what units we thought were loyal to the shah … seizure of the radio station etc … the classical plan,” recalled Norman Darbyshire, the head of MI6’s Persia station in Cyprus at the time of the coup.

It was also revealed that Shah Reza Pahlavi’s sister had been recruited in an effort to add pressure on him to back the coup.

Iranian National Front of Iran (Jebhe Melli) militants demonstrate, 25 July 1953 in Tehran, in support of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. [-/AFP FILES-INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP via Getty Images]

Iranian National Front of Iran (Jebhe Melli) militants demonstrate, 25 July 1953 in Tehran, in support of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. [-/AFP FILES-INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP via Getty Images]

Darbyshire said that the moment Mossadegh took office, the British had decided he had to go, regardless of whether he agreed to cooperate with the British.

He revealed: “They would have wanted to oust Mossadegh regardless of whether he would have signed an agreement favourable to the British. Eventually they would have been forced to have considered getting rid of him to prevent a Russian takeover. I am convinced that was on the cards.”

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Darbyshire alleged that he gave translator and intelligence officer Robert Charles Zaener the “very simple task” of using the intelligence services to obtain funds to secure the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister from 1951-53, through “legal or quasi-legal means”, admitting to acting as Zaener’s paymaster through the whole affair.

Almost £1.5 million (worth $67.7 million in today’s money) was spent trying to depose Mossadegh in 1951, however, Darbyshire revealed that the eventual coup in 1953 only cost a total of £700,000 (just over $31.4 million today). The funds were distributed to key players in order to “keep them sweet”, he explained.

It was revealed that the Shah was nervous about becoming involved in the coup, and it took a while for the CIA under US President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration to convince him to become involved by approaching his sister to influence him.

“We made it clear that we would pay expenses, and when I produced a great wad of notes her eyes alighted and she said she would just have to go to Nice for a week to clear things up,” Darbyshire revealed.

The interview with Darbyshire was never aired because of his refusal to go on the record and be identified. Norman Darbyshire died in 1993.

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