Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2719

Iran 1953—Britain’s role in coup for oil and profit

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Coup 53 tells a story from Britain’s shameful history in the Middle East, says Isabel Ringrose
Issue 2719
US-backed forces on the streets of Tehran in 1953
US-backed forces on the streets of Tehran in 1953 (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

A new documentary exposes Britain’s role in a coup to overthrow democracy in Iran.

Coup 53 tells the story of the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, orchestrated by the US and Britain—all for oil.

Britain had an interest in the region’s oil since its discovery at the beginning of the 20th century. It controlled the Iranian oil industry through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC)—now BP.

So when Mossadeq nationalised Iran’s oil industry, British profits—and Western control of the region—were threatened.

The US proudly admits its part. Yet the Britain government has never owned up—and the extent of its involvement was never fully revealed. 

Now, Coup 53 reveals how MI6 supplied ideas, planning, payment to Iranian politicians and recruited agents to undermine Mossadeq. 

Britain had purchased 51 percent of AIOC in 1914, giving it huge political control in Iran.


Iran was promised that it would receive 16 percent of the revenue from oil production. But accounts were kept hidden from the Iranians and Britain took almost all the profit.

When he became Prime Minister in 1951, Mossadeq challenged British control by nationalising the oil industry and expropriating AIOC.

In retaliation, Britain enforced a global blockade to prevent Iran from selling its oil. It even threatened to sue any country who bought Iranian oil.

Documentary maker Taghi Amirani discovered a transcript of an unaired interview between the makers of the 1985 TV series End of Empire, and MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire.The transcript reveals that Darbyshire’s brief was to overthrow Mossadeq.

In July 1952, Mossadeq and the Iranian monarch the Shah—loyal to Britain—clashed over who would control the military. Mossadeq resigned and British agents then installed a puppet prime minister, Ahmad Qavam.

Nationwide protests of Mossadeq’s supporters broke out.

Troops loyal to the Shah killed 67 protesters. But five days later Mossadeq was reinstated as prime minister.

Britain’s next step was a military coup. It chose Fazlollah Zahedi, a Nazi sympathiser, to be the next leader of Iran.

At the same time, Mossadeq appointed a new chief of police, Mahmoud Afshartous.

Afshartous had a list of Iranian officials conspiring with the US. He was tortured and assassinated to destabilise Mossadeq’s government.

The documentary reveals that when asked if he was involved with the assassination, Darbyshire replied “Yes”. It’s damning evidence of Britain’s part in the plot to overthrow Mossadeq.

In 1953 British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Dwight Eiesenhower approved operation Ajax—the plan to remove Mossadeq.

US and British agents convinced the Shah to appoint Zahedi as prime minister.

An attempted coup on 16th August to put Zahedi in power failed miserably and the CIA ordered its forces to leave Iran.


Darbyshire, however, went ahead with a back-up plan of allowing provocateurs, paid by the US, to infiltrate protests that had erupted because of the failed coup.

Tanks and soldiers attacked Mossadeq’s house on 19 August. Mossadeq was accused of treason and put into solitary confinement until he died in 1967.

Britain regained a percentage of shares in Iranian oil, as did companies in the US and Europe. 

The US spent $45 million in aid to neutralise Mossadeq’s supporters.

Britain’s despicable meddling and denial of its involvement ever since shows the long history of how an entire region has been wrecked for profit.

Imperial rulers wanted only to be able to exploit Iran’s oil industry without care for the consequences.

Coup 53 is out now. Go to

Topics ,

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance