The story of a U.S. backed coup destabilizing a country for the benefit of Western capitalist interests is one so often repeated that each instance is a sort of classic novel in the dystopian series from the 20th century on. The tale of the Iranian coup in 1953 is indeed a classic, as it was the first of its kind. With its share of infamous characters—mainly the CIA and British MI6—as well as its lasting impact on the region, its citizenry and the world, the coup in ‘53 proved to be a monumental shift in world politics, one of great promise and prosperity for the West by means of exploitation and rapacity. For its victims, decades of occupation, terror and confusion flooded countries and created the hegemonic world we live in today.
In a brilliant attempt to make sense of it all, documentary filmmaker Taghi Amirani spent 14 years researching and producing Coup 53 and he joins host Robert Scheer in this week’s Scheer Intelligence to lay down the intricate process of making such a film. The documentary made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival four years ago and international premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. Released in 2019, Amirani’s film, despite the predictable distribution obstacles, has been raved about in the media and rightly so. With over four years of help from legendary film editor Walter Murch, the film has drawn praise from fellow filmmakers and figures like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Oliver Stone.
“The coup is such a decisive and pivotal moment in Iranian history, the way it turned everything inside out and has had ripples not just through Iran and Iranians’ relationship with themselves and their place in the world, but also way into the region and beyond. It is a national scar. It hasn’t gone away. It really shapes everything to this date,” Amirani said.
Indeed it does shape everything to date, with the CIA and Western power structures using Iran’s 1953 coup as a template for more trouble in Vietnam, Chile and a host of other countries. It also serves as an example of what happens when an individual—in this case Mohammad Mosaddegh—tries to challenge the capitalist, colonialist power structure. According to Amirani, “The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company…wasn’t just an oil company in the city of Abadan. It really had its fingers in every pie right across Iranian society. It was almost like a state within a state. It had obviously the whole colonial mindset. Iranian workers were like second, third class citizens living in mud huts, whilst the expat British lived in glorious homes [and] manicured gardens.”
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest. In this case, Taghi Amrani, who has made an incredible documentary. And I know that sounds like wild endorsement, but really one of the most interesting political documentaries that I’ve seen and I thought I knew a lot about the coup. The title is Coup 53, it’s a reference to the U.S.-British overthrow of the last democratically elected leader of Iran. And it was done in a coup ’53, in 1953, it brought their Shah back to power. We had this royal leadership of that country messing it up quite a bit. And it allowed the British to come back and control their oil, that was the object of the exercise. And as a result, it led eventually to the Shiite Islamic ayatollahs who have been ruling Iran ever since. And I want to say something about this, as being an old timer. I’m actually recording this when I just turned 87. The seminal experience of my life, my youth, was really World War II. First it was The Great Depression as one, World War II and the enthusiasm, believe it or not, despite the horror of the tragedy, or maybe because of the horror of the tragedy of World War II, culminating in the dropping in Hiroshima and Nagasaki of the atomic bombs was the idea that colonialism and the era of colonialism, which had caused so much violence in the world and oppression would be over. A U.N., a United Nations of equal nations would come into being, and they would go their own way to satisfy the needs of their people. It was a beautiful ideal, which was violated almost from the first hour. And this coup in Iran is a reflection of that, because the old colonial powers both, well, not just both, but in Vietnam, throughout Latin America and elsewhere, wanted to get back in power. And in this case, it was the British allied with the United States, and it was the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that was alarmed that this guy Mosaddegh had begun nationalizing the oil. And I think he began with the Italian oil company but was moving fast to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which we know these days is the British Petroleum Company, messed up the environment quite expansively. So I want to introduce you, but I want you to tell me your own personal journey in making this movie. How old are you? And you are in Iran and basically you were raised under the ayatollahs. You’re evoking the image of the secular leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. And it’s an incredible film. And I want to also talk about the difficulty and journey in getting it to the public. It was at Telluride, and it was well-received. Very famous people knowledgeable about the subject have said it’s an incredible contribution. Yet you’re here in Los Angeles, where I got to see it at Laemmle. I thank the Laemmle for showing it and we’re going to show it at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism this evening. But it really has had a hard time getting out there. So tell us, you, your age, your origin, how you got in the film business and how you came to make this really epic two hour documentary.
Taghi Amirani: Thank you, Bob, and thank you for the opportunity to talk about this film. The journey of the film, my own journey and the journey of the film, trying to get out to the audience is really intense, really full of crises and ups and downs. And I was born in Iran. I didn’t grow up under the Ayatollahs, I grew up under the Shah. I, by pure coincidence…
Scheer: When were you born?
Amirani: I was born in 1960. I am just coming up this September to my 63rd. If I may take the opportunity. Can I just say happy birthday to you?
Scheer: Yes. Yes.
Amirani: Oh, what an honor to be talking to you on your birthday.
Scheer: So you’ve really devoted your adult life to, well a large part of it, to this project.
Amirani: Yeah. I am now in my 14th year on this project. Yeah. It took 10 years to make.
Scheer: Project being Coup 53, trying to unravel what happened to Iran. Very important country, not only for the Middle East, for the whole production of oil, for the world economy. And you have, all a lot of us have known this story. People have written articles, a few very good books about it, but not the full story. And one reason I’m having you here and I of course, I learned from your film. And I interviewed Kermit Roosevelt, the top CIA guy who had actually partially engineered this coup. I thought I knew a lot about that when I worked at the L.A. Times. I interviewed him 25 years after the fact, but still got the story. And he actually ended up writing a book, which then confirmed a lot of that. But you really have got the mystery here, how it was done and that really the Americans were involved, but the Brits getting their oil back, that was really the real drama. Oil trumped everything. British imperialism, abetted by American neo-colonialism, did the trick. So take it from there and so you’re 63? So you grew up mainly under the Shah?
Amirani: I was in Iran until I was 15. I left in 1975 purely by accident. It had nothing to do with the revolution. The revolution was just a glint in people’s eye. Not even that.
Scheer: You mean, the Islamic revolution. Yeah.
Amirani: So the 1979 revolution and the coup is such a decisive and pivotal moment in Iranian history, the way it turned everything inside out and has had ripples not just through Iran and Iranians’ relationship with themselves and their place in the world, but also way into the region and beyond. It is a national scar. It hasn’t gone away. It really shapes everything to this date. I grew up with the story because I had heard my family, the elders talking about it late into the night. Whenever they came to this word, they would whisper it. I was seven years old and late into the night they’d be sitting around chatting. Mosaddegh. And I couldn’t figure out why they’re whispering this one word. And what is this word? I had no idea. Looking back, putting the pieces together, I think it’s when he died and even talking about Mosaddegh, even having his portrait or having his books, you could get arrested for that. So it was hush hush. So the word had got out…
Scheer: This is under a supposedly better government that the U.S. helped install. But if you wanted to know who was this democratically elected leader who was overthrown with the work of the U.S. and the Brits, you could get arrested, so much for freedom. And the irony is that Mosaddegh, I believe, was the one of the few Western educated individuals in Iran at that time. And he got his doctorate. And so to introduce him as…
Amirani: He was highly educated. He was probably one of the first Iranians to get a doctorate of law from a Swiss university. They celebrated the anniversary, the 100th anniversary of his Ph.D. at Neuchâtel University. I went to that event and he, for a very short window in Iranian history from 1951, from the nationalization to the coup, Iran had a little baby democracy. Trying to get its feet, you know, there was press freedom and it was anything goes. And that was crushed in ’53 August ’53, Mosaddegh came to power as prime minister on two tickets, nationalizing Iranian oil and electoral reform, because the whole election process, the parliament, was rigged. It was very corrupt. There was a lot of bribery going on. The British were mainly dominating that whole environment. The Anglo Iranian oil company, which began as the Anglo Persian Oil Company, became Anglo Iranian company and then it became BP after the coup, wasn’t just an oil company in the city of Abadan in the Khuzestan region. It really had its fingers in every pie right across Iranian society. It was almost like a state within a state. It had obviously the whole colonial mindset. Iranian workers were like second, third class citizens living in mud huts. Whilst the expat British lived in glorious homes, you know, manicured gardens. They had the clubs, they had everything, all the facilities. And so he came to power on nationalizing Iranian oil as his main objective. And as soon as he did that, relationships soured. The angry Iranian oil company was about to lose its biggest asset. The Anglo Iranian Oil Company was the biggest overseas asset of the British state. It was huge. It was selling Iranian oil across the world. It was running the British Navy. In fact, Churchill converted the British Navy from coal to oil purely on the back of Iranian oil. So this was a huge loss, potential loss, of that. Right from the get go, they decided he had to go. I mean, the idea that you have to get rid of this guy was right from the beginning. As soon as he nationalized that was that, that was the plan. So this idea that we had to get rid of him because he was…
Scheer: You’re skipping over some history and teaching at a university here, I know history has been denied to us in a calculated way, because it’s mostly an inconvenient truth. What the hell were the Brits doing in Iran? We accept this as normal, we accept Western colonialism dominating the whole region as normal. So do a little primary education here.
Amirani: They were there for a long time. They had a long, long kind of dark…
Scheer: They are the colonial powers, just as they were in India.
Amirani: They were even though Iran wasn’t officially part of the empire, it was very much treated as much. It was treated like a colony. It was everything you see in a colony but name, right across. I mean, and they were there for decades. Well, even before the discovery of oil in 1908. So they had deep roots in Iran. And the way they ran that city was Abadan. The refinery was [indistinguishable], they in fact, they imported cheap Indian labor over the Iranians.
Scheer: And just to be clear about this, the Brits only survived World War II and were allowed to come back in because of U.S. power. The U.S. was presumably committed to some anti-colonial notion. It betrayed that in Vietnam it betrayed it all over the place. But here was the United States, beginning with Harry Truman, helping the Brits consolidate their power. But they were a little hesitant about whether we actually should destroy the vestiges of what was the appearance of an Iranian civil society and government. And so, Mohammad Mosaddegh was a confusing figure. And the way the U.S. got into it is the Brits were able to label Mohammad as maybe open to the Russians, nearby, bringing it into the Cold War. And as happened with Vietnam, as a very good example. Later, with Cuba much later but it happened throughout Latin America. If you could identify the popular nationalist movement with somehow communism, then you could do anything you want to bring back the old colonial power.
Amirani: That’s right. That the communist boogeyman was a perfect cover story. And in fact, Truman was sympathetic to Mosaddegh’s cause. He even told the British, you know, he has a right, respect their sovereignty, come to some arrangement. And Mosaddegh put a lot of faith in Truman, they got on, they got on really well. It was when you know, the tables turned and Eisenhower came to power that Mosaddegh didn’t see coming. He didn’t have enough understanding of the ways of American politics and how the whole thing had changed with the Dulles brothers coming in. But right up to the end of Truman’s term, he thought he had an ally that was going to stand up to the Brits. And even though they tried to persuade the Americans to come in on the coup, Truman wouldn’t go for it. Things, things changed. And as we see in the film, even before Eisenhower was inaugurated, as soon as he’s elected, Churchill was in the U.S. having discussions about this plan.
Scheer: That’s ’52, 1952. And by the way, Eisenhower learned some painful lessons from this because by the time he left office, he knew that we were getting increasingly controlled by a military industrial complex and this extension of war and empire was a betrayal of the promise of peace after World War II. So here we have really the critical reason your movie is so important, Coup 53, is it all goes south, it all sours, if you like that better, with this coup, because this ushers in decades of meddling, overthrowing, subversion of nationalist aspirations, and indeed in this case, democratic aspirations throughout the world. And a model is created that the U.S. thinks is successful. They go one up on the Brits. Now, it’s not just Iran. We can do this everywhere. We do it in Guatemala. We do it in Cuba. We’ll do it in Vietnam, such as, that’s the Vietnam War, based on the ease or the success of this coup in Iran.
Amirani: Yeah. Yeah. It emboldened the CIA to repeat and rinse. It became a template. It was almost like pull out the plan, cross out Iran, put in Guatemala, cross out them, put in Chile.
Scheer: And I promise I always promise I’ll listen or shut up. But I do want to mention I actually have some connection with this because Kermit Roosevelt, who was the, at least rumored to be at that time, but he probably was, the chief U.S. agent, CIA agent on the scene. When I interviewed him, I was at the L.A. Times. My wife found, who was the weekend editor, Narda Zacchino. She said, why don’t you interview somebody you really want to. I wanted to interview him. She found his name, believe it or not, in the Washington, DC, old fashioned phone book. I called him while he was in the hospital, but he could talk. His wife gave me the room number and he did say and he did say in his book that came out later that he did not see this as a model for intervention all over the world. He thought this was a big disaster. It worked there for special reasons and you can describe them here. He said, but he didn’t think it would work elsewhere. And yet it became, as you say, the template.
Amirani: Yeah, in fact, there’s a letter from Allen Dulles. When Kermit gets back from Iran, there is a yeah, we can we can actually see it in the archives. There’s a letter from Allen Dulles saying, Congratulations, good job, have a good rest coming on Monday, I’ve got some other ideas. Let’s talk, I’ve got an idea. And yes, Kermit is on record in an interview I’ve seen which says this was a very special set of circumstances, certain elements have to be in place for this work to work. You can’t just simply transplant this plant everywhere all the time. I had to make this film. I had to get it off my chest. I wasn’t mature enough or experienced enough as a filmmaker before I started this because I’d only just done television documentaries. So this is my first feature length movie, and the journey began in 2009. I had read Stephen Kinzer’s book, and the moment I finished the book, I thought, That’s going to be my first…
Scheer: Let’s pay credit to that. Stephen Kinzer, who really is the journalist who took the lid off this story.
Amirani: All the Shah’s Men. Yeah, it’s a great nonfiction thriller page turner, and it really takes you through it.
Scheer: And he’s in your movie.
Amirani: And he’s one of the key commentators. We have three really incredible commentators, historians who are like the backbone of the film, along with the other interviewees and archive. And everything else that we have is a kind of multilayered, very kind of tightly woven, thanks to Walter Murch’s masterful editing. So there’s Stephen Kinzer, there’s David Talbot, there’s Professor Ervand Abrahamian and Malcolm Byrne from the National Security Archives.
Scheer: And David Talbot, who had been the editor of Salon, wrote the definitive work on Allen Dulles, the big book, The Devil’s Chessboard and incredibly solid contribution, throw that in.
Amirani: And we were very well served by these brilliant commentators and historians and great storytellers, too. It was going to be a narrative fiction. When I read All the Shah’s Men, I tried to option it and Stephen said, somebody else has the option, it’s not available and come back if it expires. And he has done nothing with it. But in my research, I found Mosaddegh, the head of security, the bodyguard. He was in his early eighties. He happened to be visiting his son, who was a heart surgeon in Calabasas to see his grandchildren. I found out. I drove up the hill, sat down, interviewed him on camera for 8 hours, and by the end of that interview, I found him so compelling, so vivid, so also an incredible witness and so fresh. He talked about the events as if that had happened to him yesterday. And I thought, why would I get actors to be in a narrative fiction movie on this? I’ve got the real witness here. Let’s find more of them. And there were a handful left, all in their eighties. That was a matter of urgency, of timing, to get them before they die. And we managed to get most of them. And so it became the documentary it became. Nobody wanted to fund this film. Nobody would touch it. I tried every single source of funding that documentary makers go to. I’ve been an experienced documentary maker as a television filmmaker, so I know where you go for money if you’re doing something like this. Rejected across the board. I had to raise the money in donations dollar by dollar, and that’s why it took so long, because the money would run out. In retrospect, it was a blessing because the longer it took to raise money, the longer we had to research and dig deep and find more people, find more archives, find more footage. So it was a blessing when people pulled out. And, you know, I had to go around chasing money and research. I got very, very lucky. I always say at my introductions for the screenings, I am not the best documentary maker, but I’m very, very, very lucky. Probably the luckiest documentary maker in getting the great Walter Murch to join this project. He thought he’d sign up for six months. To work on this little documentary.
Scheer: For people who don’t know him, You should mention.
Amirani: Walter Murch.
Scheer: Worked with Coppola and everybody. Yeah.
Amirani: He’s worked with Francis Ford Coppola. He’s actually a USC graduate. I know you shouldn’t name drop because everybody here is huge.
Scheer: That’s what we do. We name drop.
Amirani: You namedrop. Okay. So Walter is a USC graduate along with George Lucas, Caleb Deschanel. There was a very special group of people in the early sixties who came out of USC, joined up with Francis, who was at UCLA, and they decamped to San Francisco because they didn’t want to do Hollywood. Bless them, good for them. So Walter brought his amazing wealth of experience, you know, 50 years in motion pictures, countless Oscars and BAFTAs. And he moved to London because they had a house, he had edited films in London before that, his little house. So they signed up for six months. Walter ended up staying on this project for four years. I spent four years in the cutting room, more time that I’ve spent with anybody in a room in my life and at Walter Murch University. This is an unscripted film. It’s an honest…we didn’t know what we were going to find. It was just evolving. We just kept finding stuff. We shut down, we researched, we started again, and that changed the story as we were making it. And which is why it’s important for filmmakers out there. If you ever work with an editor on an unscripted documentary, you must credit the editor as co-writer because the writing of the movie happens in the editing. The editing is essentially writing it backwards.
Scheer: Well, as long as we’re giving credit, you should give credit to the terrific National Security Archive in Washington.
Scheer: Which is a privately funded organization that does a lot of the Freedom of Information inquiries. And so for people listening to this and the reason I was blown away by this is you solved the mystery. I am one of dozens of people who had a piece of it. And I certainly applaud Kinzer and Talbot and others who did the really heavy lifting. But there was a real mystery…who was, how was it organized? And they went in there, they bribed people. They got the mob going. They created a coup. We’ve seen other coups, and the CIA did it. But the CIA didn’t do it alone. And MI5 the Brits oh, I’m sorry, six, we’re getting the oil back for the glory of England and so tell us because you used a fictional character because you didn’t have video of the actual character so introduce…
Amirani: Let me tell you about the magnificent performance by Ralph Fiennes. So backtrack a bit. This has been known even to me, when I started working on it, as the CIA coup, Kermit Roosevelt coup. It was always, this is the CIA coup in Iran. In fact, in 2013, through Malcolm Byrne, more declassified papers came out on the 60th anniversary of the coup. But. This wasn’t by design. It was purely a lucky break. We find this amazing, amazing, extraordinary interview that the MI6 officer who ran the coup, wrote the plan for the coup. He was the mastermind. He co-wrote the plan for the coup, Donald Wilber from the CIA, under the… He was an academic, but also a spy. And in this interview. He blows the lid off the whole story and how he did it. He was completely in charge. All the minutiae of the planning, the bribing, the court control of the mob. Darbyshire was a 19 year old soldier who went to Iran in 1947 and he knew Iran inside out. He spoke Persian. He was very, very streetwise, really savvy. He wasn’t your classic colonial pinstripe suit as an Oxbridge diplomat. That wasn’t his scene. He actually talks disparagingly about the British diplomats at the embassy having cocktail parties while he’s out there mixing with the people, getting to know Iran and Iranians. So this interview turned the whole story inside out for us because then it emerged that he, around this coup, was in charge. Through him and through his planning, they dragged the CIA in. The CIA was a relatively new organization then. It hadn’t gone off campus. It hadn’t played out in the field like the British had before. And the way they brought the CIA and the Americans in was presenting Mosaddegh as a communist threat. Iran was going to get swamped and taken over by the Russians, and we had to save Iran from communism. Nothing about oil. It wasn’t “Please help us get our oil back. Please let us get rid of this common enemy, Mosaddegh and communism.” And that worked, that paranoid state of 1950s America. They hit the right buttons. He had given this interview to a British television…
Scheer: With no evidence that he was a communist.
Amirani: He wasn’t. He wasn’t. He was the least likely communist. Yeah. You know, he just had a belief that people are free to organize if they want to publish their papers, they can. There was amazing freedom of the press in those 28 months of Mosaddeq rule, a very short time, a tiny little glimpse of what democracy might have evolved in Iran had it been allowed to go on and not lead to the explosion of the ’79 revolution. We found the Darbyshire transcript very late in the day. I mean, you couldn’t make this up. The producers who made this documentary and interviewed Darbyshire didn’t or couldn’t use the interview in their film. Now we can explore the minutiae of that whole story of why…
Scheer: This is prior to your film.
Amirani: Yeah. Yeah. This is a 1985 British television documentary, a series called End of Empire, 14 parts. It’s all about the unfolding and unwinding of the empire. Different countries. Even though Iran wasn’t part of the empire, it was dominated by British interests for so long. They included a program on Iran and the coup. So it became part of the, you know, End of Empire series, the Iran episode. The Iran episode is notorious because the most incendiary, amazing revelations in their interviews, not just Darbyshire’s, they didn’t put in their film. We have all the transcripts. When the production finished, the researcher from the program, instead of dumping all the production papers and research papers, they were about to trash them. Mosaddegh’s grandson Hedayat Matine-Daftary was an advisor, historic advisor on this program. And when they finished, they said, well, this is basically your granddad’s story, would you like these papers? And so sure. He took them away, put them in his basement in Paris. They sat there for 34 years until Taghi Amrani showed up. And you see in the film, I take this pile of papers, I take them back to London and leaf through them and I’m blown away by the content. These are research notes, original transcripts, everything they’ve got. And among them is this remarkable historic document, the original interview transcript of Norman Darbyshire with his name on it with the director’s note at the top right in pencil with his initial M.A., Mark Anderson. It says “excellent,” if we want a coup in detail, and even if not, that interview blew me away and it was cut up, the old school of film structure you know, you literally had to cut and paste to create a script. There were big bits missing, and in the same pile there is the intact interview. There it’s uncut, with his name redacted. You piece it together and then you find out the things he said. And first you think, okay, why isn’t this in their film? What’s the story? Why is everybody else in the film? But he’s not in the finished film. That’s a key question. And we found out by luck that the British Film Institute archives kept old outtakes. They preserve archives for historic reasons for the nation. We went to the BFI. We found all the other interviews. They were in cans, old cans sitting there. We cleaned them. We paid for it. We actually helped them clean and preserve this, we digitized it. We were the first to digitize those interviews and we couldn’t find Darbyshire and fast forward. I don’t want to… It’s also something I don’t want to… It’s a plot spoiler. It becomes a bit of a thriller. A lot of the reviews…
Scheer: Your movie, Coup 53, is a great mystery story. And you have a terrific actor playing the missing person here. Yeah.
Amirani: When we couldn’t find the audiotape or the film, if they filmed him, we thought, right, we’ve got to bring this to life. And again, Walter Murch, the greatest gift of gods of cinema to this film. He knew Ralph Fiennes from his work on the English Patient and they were in touch. And one day we were thinking of which actor? Which actor? And we were going for lunch. And Walter says, What about Ralph Fiennes and immediately a light bulb moment? I said, Of course, Ralph plays M in the fake James Bond spy movie. He’s head of MI6 as a character in James Bond. Let’s get him to be a real MI6 officer. And that idea evolved over a few days. Rather than get him to just read or be in a studio, let’s take him back to the location where End of Empire interviewed other interviewees for the series, The Savoy Hotel. And that’s how that amazing scene with Ralph bringing Darbyshire’s words to life happens and he electrifies the film. People forget he’s Ralph Fiennes. 3 minutes into the film, they think that’s Darbyshire.
Scheer: Well, it’s a breakthrough. And you’re using the actual text of what he said. Now there is something of a disclaimer at the end of the movie. So you should explain that, right?
Amirani: Okay, So, this is a fascinating story, post-release of this film, which we are documenting and have been filming and it’s going to be part of a sequel potentially called Coup 53.1. And we made the film. It came out and it was out in the world for a year and End of empire didn’t make a noise, said nothing. It was around a festival circuit for a year. It went to thirty festivals, world premiere Telluride, it played at the London Film Festival. It was nominated for a Grierson Award. It was played at the British Independent Film Awards. Nothing. Not a pipsqueak. As soon as the film was self-released in August 2020 and we had to self-release just because no distributor would touch it, it got wall to wall coverage, incredible coverage from all the main papers in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. We were on NPR, The London Times Telegraph. Everywhere, it was, we were on BBC five times, Channel Four News. It became a story. The Guardian wrote a story about a Darbyshire transcript. On the day we released the transcript to the National Security Archive, we actually gave the transcript to Malcolm Byrne, even though End of Empire had done it and never released it, never was… It had been given to writers, it was in other books, but it was very niche and specialist. So until we brought it out in full, it wasn’t known, it wasn’t obvious what it contained. And we were threatened with a lawsuit by the producers of End of Empire, two of whom are actually featured in the film, on the screen in our film. Their claim is that our film defames them and stains their reputation as upstanding journalists by implying that they filmed him, put him in the film, and had to take him out under pressure. And so they cooperate with censorship. And this puts a stain on their reputation. And for that they threatened to sue us. The amazing thing is they never sued us. They never even hired lawyers. We didn’t even get a letter from a lawyer anytime, they just put it out there. They created a cloud of smoke and mudslinging on this film. I, now, by coincidence, The New Yorker has published only in this week’s edition, and I don’t know if you can see this. “The smear campaign industry.” I read this article yesterday on a plane from Washington to L.A. Everything in that article was like a holy mother of Jesus, that’s what happened to me. That’s about to happen to our film. This was such a coordinated smear campaign to make sure this film is discredited, is derailed, is pushed aside, and distributors won’t touch it. So that’s why we put those disclaimers in the film, because, you know, we have to let the audience know what they say. Thanks to them, that makes the film stronger. People watch that and chuckle, saying, Oh, yeah, right. They even managed to get the cameraman who shot End of Empire was in our film, who is in our film saying he remembers Darbyshire vividly because he had such an impact. I remember him because he really was astonishing. That’s why I remember him. Two years afterwards, after his interview, they got him to change his story, saying, Sorry, I made the mistake. I was suffering from false memory. When we were talking to our lawyers who had seen the film. They said, Humphrey Trevelyan is the most believable witness, if I put him in the doc. That guy is so believable. And I feel sorry for him because I think he’s a dignified, respected man. And what, I don’t know what happened to him, but he came out two years after the film’s release saying…
Scheer: Yeah, so but the point is, in the film is very… First of all, the real issue here and we shouldn’t distract from it, is that there’s no question and it’s been well documented now in book after book and frankly, I don’t want to intrude myself, but I think my article for the Los Angeles Times, based on a clear interview, he never, not only did he not disagree with my interview accounting the CIA role, but he wrote a book. You know, in fact, it’s in a few college libraries. His book, taking credit for it and the CIA actually had an event in which they thanked him and it became the model for intervention. So I don’t want to lose that thread. That yes, this particular production in England should have done more with this material. They obviously cut it from their program and that leaves them with, I guess, some egg on their face. But that’s not really the issue here. The issue is that this was treated as a great success and a victory for democracy because in the Cold War we stopped this guy, Mohammed Mosaddegh, he would have been an ally of the Soviets. Of course, none of that was true. The evidence is quite clear. And I you know, as I can be a witness here when I talk to Kermit Roosevelt, he was very clear that, you know, that this was a successful CIA operation. He played down the role of the Brits. You have stressed the role of the Brits much more. But the real issue is that it became the post-World War II model for attempting to control history at the price of nationalism on the part of different countries. Yeah, whether it was Indian nationalism, Vietnamese nationalism or any other. The real problem here was that they in fact were trying to control history. And ironically, given that oil is now seen as a great enemy of the survival of human beings, fossil fuel, this was all an attempt to pump oil in the Middle East, was abandoned and made an enormous amount of money. And as I recall the history, actually, they didn’t first go after the Brits. They went after an Italian oil company. I forget the…
Amirani: So the story was, that’s right, when Mosaddegh nationalized the oil, the Brits had to leave. The first thing they did was put an oil embargo on Iranians selling their oil. In fact, they put adverts in international newspapers saying, if you buy Iranian oil, you’re buying a lawsuit. And they were very sort of forceful on this. Two countries defied the British. And bless them, we loved them, the Italians and the Japanese. In fact, they took the Japanese to court and lost because the Japanese sent a tanker to Abadan to load up Iranian oil in defiance of the British embargo. They had their warships in the Persian Gulf, and when the Italians sent a ship, the Mary Rose, they tried to torpedo and sink it. They arrested the captain. And this was during the time of Enrico Mattei and, you know, the whole seven sisters stories. So yeah, they tried to derail the whole thing first through financial sanctions, embargoes, destabilizing the government, and making the economy weak. So he would just fall with the Iranian people being dissatisfied with the way the countries run and the harsh economy. It evolved into the whole military coup idea later, after he kicked the British out, he shut down the British embassy. And now the Kermit story is that he didn’t speak Persian. He was in Iran for three weeks. He was a bit of an adventurist and a bit of a fantasist. His book has been described in different circles as partly fiction. And in fact, his book and his claim to fame as the mastermind of the coup, dining out, getting contrast, getting on talk shows, having a kind of audience with the Shah, getting, you know, really making money. And meanwhile, Darbyshire, who ran this, this is his gig, isn’t allowed by the British to say anything. He’s not even allowed to exist. So anyone knows who he is. And so until 1983, when we can we can debate what drove him to do it. There could be endless reasons. He goes rogue, he spills the beans and if you read the transcript, by the way, the transcript…
Scheer: Well, the same thing, I want to say, the same thing happened with Kermit Roosevelt in a way, because when I interviewed him and as I say, it was 25 years after the event.
Amirani: I’d love to hear that.
Scheer: And I was working at the Los Angeles Times, and it was a great breakthrough story because I got the CIA guy who, you’re right, he might have been exaggerating. The CIA’s as opposed to the British role, they certainly cooperated. But I know there is an old saying, never hustle a hustler, which kind of can apply to journalism. And I thought, wow, this is great. I’ve gotten this great story out of this guy. And there was no question he was not drugged up, he was in the hospital, but he was very clear. His wife told me he’ll be very eager to talk to you because I told her what I was after. I wanted to know, you know, how this coup happens. You know, I’m sure he’ll talk to you. The reason she was sure, she knew we had a book coming out. I didn’t know that, you know, So I thought, okay, this is great, we’re having an interesting conversation. It all held up, you know, as far as what he said. And then several months later, the book came out. And that’s why I understood I had been used by him to advance…
Amirani: You were his marketing campaign manager.
Scheer: Yes, I was part of his marketing. However…
Amirani: And you know the story about the book, don’t you, I mean, first thought the title is telling, it’s Countercoup. So it’s not a coup. We staged a coup against Mosaddegh, who was trying to stage a coup. So that’s one thing. And the other story that Malcolm Byrne can’t explain in much better detail than me, the first time the book comes out somewhere in there, he says the coup was the idea of British Petroleum, who then got MI6 on board to run it. British Petroleum threatened to sue the publisher and Kermit. They have to go and pulp thousands and thousands of copies of that book and reprint in which they take that bit out where it says it was a British Petroleum’s idea. Somewhere out there in some library, there is the original copy of Countercoup in which he says it was BP’s idea.
Scheer: There was a change of a photograph, as I recall, in the first version. And the second.
Scheer: There was some parody of Hitler or something.
Amirani: Okay. Is that part of the propaganda?
Scheer: Yeah. But I want to be clear for people listening to this, why it’s important. Because the whole period of the post World War II period was the destruction of a grand ideal. And the grand ideal was to empower the people of the world. Now that we had defeated the monster of Germany and Japan, these despotic, evil people correctly, who wanted to conquer the world, Japan would conquer Asia and Germany, and then everybody always leaves Italy out of it, Mussolini would help. We now, we’re going to liberate a world in which ordinary people, were going to be able to express themselves and define their nation. Right. And this would be true in India. Would be true of Vietnam. Would be true in Guatemala, would be true everywhere. And then we decided that’s a little bit risky. We want to control the action because the bad guys are going to get in. The new bad guys were the Soviets and Russia or something. So we have to prevent, we have to control this exercise in Iran. The coup of ’53 stands, that’s why I’m justifying our spending all this time and getting people to watch your film, this was the test case. This was, you know, can you control this challenge to colonialism, this nationalism in a way that will support the U.S. position in the Cold War and make it a world safe for, dare I say it, American and British capitalism. You know, because we don’t want anti-colonialism associated with nationalizing American corporate assets. That was the danger of Mosaddegh, not that he was some kind of Bolshevik, but rather he was a guy who thought, amazingly enough, what Saudi Arabia now argues, came to argue and everybody else, that they had one thing going for them over there in Iran, actually they had a lot they had a wonderful, complex culture and history, but the fact of matter is economically, they were going to become players through their oil. Yeah. And so therefore, they had a national interest in controlling their oil. The same thing Saudi Arabia ended up arguing.
Amirani: Had a 50/50 deal with the whole Aramco business. Yeah. Also the other thing with Mosaddegh was that he was an inspiration to other anti-colonialists. In fact, he was an inspiration for Nasser, which led to the Suez Canal crisis. And they didn’t want him to be a model for other people in the region. And so that was the other reason. Going back to Kermit, he was involved, he played a part, he was a bagman. He flew out there with a fake passport and was to carry suitcases of cash.
Scheer: Oh, he told me that in great detail. And in fact, he was so proud. He said, I didn’t even have to spend it all, you know?
Amirani: Yeah, you’ve seen our film, you know the amount of depth of research we go into. I found three different interviews in which you can tell this guy makes it up in one interview, which is in the film. He says, I had $1,000,000 and I spent about 60. In other interview, with British television, I can show you the footage, he says it was $700,000 and I spent only ten. So it’s a moving target, what he actually spent. So take from that what you will about.
Scheer: Well, but also there were other pieces operating, as you point out, the British secret operation. And where was the Shah and how do you move this person back and who is going to be the new prime minister? So you had these very sophisticated Western spy agencies doing this. And Kermit Roosevelt, I feel, yes, he basically took money into the bazaar and to bribe people in the moment.
Scheer: Yeah, rent-a-mob. And that was his chutzpah, that he and maybe maybe you can do that for 60,000 on a specific day in the bazaar, you can get the old weightlifting or wrestlers bodybuilding club and get other hooligans, and they’ll go out in the streets and so forth. But the real issue here was and here I will defend Kermit Roosevelt, by the way, you know, related to Teddy Roosevelt. But I would defend him, he, in his book and in my interview with him, he said I did not, I don’t know, maybe he’s not even being honest there, but he did say, I told him, you just can’t just go and do this in Guatemala or Vietnam or Cuba or something, because there was position, specific circumstance in Iran that we could take advantage of. And part of that, by the way, is that British intelligence was already working very extensively.
Amirani: They had done the legwork.
Scheer: Yeah, they done it. And so Kermit could come in with his bags of cash and say, Hey, this is easier than I thought it would be.
Amirani: The [indistinguishable] had laid the groundwork. They’d done all the hard work they had, the networks, they knew, the culture they knew. And in fact, when the first attempt of the coup fails, Kermit kind of loses his nerve. In fact, there’s a telegram from Washington saying, “We’ve lost, Mosaddegh has won. Pack up and get out of there.” And it’s actually, you know, that’s where the Darbyshire thing kicks in. He turns it around. He’s the one who makes it a success. The turnaround of the coup spins on Darbyshire taking initiative, getting his own rent-a-crowd out. And that’s why the interview with Darbyshire is significant. The other significant thing is that to this day, the British government, the British state, has not officially admitted that it was involved in this coup, that it played a leading part. It’s not declassified, it’s not talked about. It’s like, you know, hear no evil, speak no evil. The Americans, bless them, have come clean. Even Obama acknowledges this coup in his 2009 speech in Cairo to the Muslim world. You know, Clinton has talked about it, Madeleine Albright has talked about it, and papers have come out. The FRUS report has come out. The British even tried to crush the FRUS report and redact it the first time it was kind of coming out because they wanted to take all the British royal out of it. It finally came out in 2017 during our production. And if you see that this whole story of the British not owning up through the prism of Darbyshire’s interview disappearing and not being used in that film, then pieces begin to make sense, you know, and End of Empire say, he gave an off the record interview on audiotape only. I mean, how do you go off the record in a recording of your voice? This is a seasoned spy. This is a man who really knows his work is, you know. That’s what he does. And he’s saying the most incendiary stuff on tape. He knows he’s on the record. You cannot be off the record if you record it. None of this stuff that End of Empire has been throwing at our film makes sense. There are so many holes in this big Swiss cheese.
Scheer: Okay, But again, let me conclude on this. But with the thread of the story is and which by now become and your movie sort of is the definitive work up to this point and you know you, I guess it’s called research, very liberally help yourself to you know a great deal of documentation. And so let’s just end on what is very clear. The politics central trouble zone of the world, if you like, if we think of 9/11 and everything else and wars and never ending wars, going back to the first Suez and right on has to do with grabbing this precious resource of the Middle East, oil, and letting it dominate everything else. And then with this mischief grab, you create great tragedy in the world, a great instability and including severe economic problems and ultimately a dependance upon fossil fuel that ends up threatening the very existence of life on this planet, all of which is encapsulated in this odd spy drama that you have documented. And at the heart of it is the mischief making of yes two intelligence operations that of the United States, let’s not let the CIA off the hook here, and they’ve actually fessed up to a good part of it, and the British, which had a more direct economic interest, and they’re bringing back British, now called British Petroleum. I hope I don’t get sued over that. But they’re bringing back the Anglo Iranian or Persian Oil Company. And so the crass economic motive created enormous chaos.
Amirani: We have documents in which the Americans are talking to the British before the coup, saying we need some of this oil in order to help you. You know, they were carving out Iranian oil before agreeing to come and help the British. And that’s evident in the fact that after the coup, that BP’s broken up. There’s a consortium, they only get 40%, used to have 100%, and they have to share Iranian oil with American and European oil companies.
Scheer: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because that’s definitive.
Amirani: It was: give us some oil, we’ll help you.
Scheer: Yeah. And if you think about it, probably the troubles around Iran have been at the center of a good part of the troubles in this world. And it’s an irony that, after all, the whole hope of the formation of the U.N. in the postwar period was that the end of colonialism could be managed in a way that would liberate people to control their resources. And instead you have this mischief making on a grand level. So I want to thank you, Taghi Amirani, for telling us about your film. It’s called Coup 53. Is this going to still be in most theaters or…
Amirani: Well, four years after its release at Telluride Film Festival, we still have no distribution. You’re looking at the distributor of this film. I go from theater to theater and make connections with the programmers, and the Laemmle have been amazing. Greg Laemmle has been brilliant, by programming it at the Roxy in San Francisco. He’s actually showing tonight at the Roxy. Act One Cinema in London. Amazing. They programmed one show, it sold out. Programmed another one, it sold out. They’re having two shows on the same night. They keep adding. And I think we’re going to build something.
Scheer: You had it in Washington this week.
Amirani: We had the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater on Sunday night, an incredible Q&A, the most engaged audience we’ve had in a long time. The best questions, I was blown away.
Scheer: Yeah. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who revealed the existence of torture. And tonight, you know, we’re going to have a screening here at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC, University of Southern California. And you and John Kiriakou are both speaking at this. And so finally, we’re learning this history that then we have. I want to thank you for doing that. I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station, excellent one, in Santa Monica for posting these podcasts. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, puts it all together, Diego Ramos, who writes the introduction, Max Jones who does the video function. And I want to thank Sebastian Gruber here at the Annenberg School for being a terrific producer of these tapes that we very often can use at these excellent facilities. And I overall want to thank the JKW Foundation, which in the memory of a tribute to the memory of Jean Stein, a terrific journalist, writer, for providing some funding for these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.