Above Photo: Rioters armed with staves shout slogans, during riots in Tehran, August 1953. Intercontinentale/AFP via Getty Images.
Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani joins Chris Hedges to discuss his documentary ‘Coup 53.’
He uses newly discovered archival material to expose how the CIA and British intelligence worked clandestinely to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh 70 years ago.
On Aug. 19, 1953, 70 years ago this week, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh—who had seized Iran’s vast oil fields from the British and put them under Iranian control—was removed from power in a coup organized and financed by the British and US governments. He was replaced by the dictatorial Shah, who immediately signed over 40% of Iran’s oil fields to US companies. The coup ushered in a long nightmare of repression, buttressed by Iran’s brutal secret police, SAVAK, trained and equipped by the CIA. The Shah not only crushed the democratic aspirations of Iranians, but enriched US oil companies and purchased billions of dollars of weapons from US weapons manufacturers. The dictatorship of the Shah fueled the virulent anti-American backlash that led to the 1979 Revolution and the establishment of a militant Islamic government. The Iran coup also became the template used by the CIA to overthrow other governments around the globe that challenged US hegemony and the exploitation by global corporations. While the CIA has acknowledged its role in the 1953 coup, to this day, the British government has not confessed to its imperialist crimes in Iran.
Joining The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his documentary Coup 53 is Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani. Amirani’s film uses newly discovered archival material to expose how the CIA and British intelligence worked clandestinely to overthrow Mosaddegh.
Taghi Amirani is an Iranian-born English physicist and documentary filmmaker who lives in the United Kingdom. He has directed and produced numerous, internationally acclaimed documentaries, including We Are Many, Red Lines and Deadlines, and Coup 53.
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Chris Hedges: On August 19th, 1953, 70 years ago this week, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had seized Iran’s vast oil fields from the British and put them under Iranian control, was removed from power in a coup organized and financed by the British and US governments. He was replaced by the dictatorial Shah, who immediately signed over 40% of Iran’s oil fields to US companies.
The coup ushered in a long nightmare of repression, buttressed by Iran’s brutal secret police, SAVAK, trained and equipped by the CIA. The Shah not only crushed the democratic aspirations of Iranians, but enriched US oil companies and purchased billions of dollars of weapons from US weapons manufacturers. The CIA and the British Intelligence Services used bribery, libel, black propaganda that accused Mosaddegh of being a communist, assassinations, and orchestrated riots by paid mercenaries to overthrow the democratic government. They hired agents to pose as communists to threaten religious leaders, while the US ambassador lied to the prime minister about alleged attacks on American citizens. They oversaw the assassination of the chief of police, a Mosaddegh loyalist, leaving his mutilated body on the street as a warning to others who might defend the democracy. At least 300 people were killed in fighting in the streets of Tehran. Mosaddegh’s house was surrounded and attacked and most of his security detail were killed. Mosaddegh was sentenced to three years in prison, followed by house arrest for life.
The dictatorship of the Shah fueled the virulent anti-American backlash that led to the 1979 Revolution and the establishment of a militant Islamic government. The Iran coup also became the template used by the CIA to overthrow other governments around the globe that challenged US hegemony and the exploitation by global corporations. The list of CIA orchestrated coups that installed compliant right-wing dictatorships includes not only Iran, but Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Iraq, Indonesia, Cambodia, Chile, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Angola, East Timor, Argentina, and Afghanistan. Hundreds of millions of people suffered because of US interference. They lost their freedom. They were impoverished and suffered severe repression because of these interventions. They were sacrificed on the altar of US power and corporate profit.
Joining me to discuss his documentary, Coup 53, is the Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani. His film uses newly discovered archival material to expose how the CIA worked clandestinely to overthrow Mosaddegh, providing us as well with the blueprint for the numerous other CIA coups carried out in the last few decades. Taghi, let’s begin with this, because it’s a central focus in your film, with what you found about this British Intelligence officer, Norman, is it, Darbyshire.
Taghi Amirani: Norman Darbyshire, that’s right. I think the Darbyshire interview is the heart and soul of this film and what it presents as new evidence, new material. When we have public screenings of the film, in our introduction, Walter Murch and I say to the audience, “We’re going to give you a pair of HD glasses, but these are not HD as in high definition or those 3D glasses. This is HD for historic dimension, and the historic dimension through which you have to experience this film is this.” To this day, 70 years since the 1953 coup, the British government has not officially admitted its role in this coup. Everything that happens in Coup 53, everything that happened to Coup 53 after its release, everything we talk about right now must be seen through that prism. The British have not yet come clean. The coup didn’t happen. They had nothing to do with it, although the CIA have finally admitted. They released the documents.
So Norman Darbyshire, in the absence of the British government official admission, stands in for that confession. He happens to be the lead MI6 officer who co-wrote the plan. He masterminded the coup. He ran the coup. He paid the mob. He orchestrated the whole management of agents on the ground. When the British were kicked out of Iran, when Mosaddegh discovered the plots for the coup, he remote-controlled the coup from Cyprus. Darbyshire’s interview is really the most clear piece of evidence of British involvement in this coup.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about that because this is a fascinating interview, and there’s an intimation in the film that the reason he went public was because Kermit Roosevelt had taken all the credit for the coup. There was a kind of vanity contest. But his interview, and you had drawn from a series, Empire, that was done in the ’80s, I think, by Granada TV or something. That interview, it never appeared. It never appeared in the series at all. So just talk about what happened there.
Taghi Amirani: End of Empire is a television documentary series made by Granada Television. It was a major flagship series. A lot of money went into it, 14 episodes. It was essentially a series about the unwinding of the British Empire. Even though Iran wasn’t really a colony and it wasn’t officially part of the empire, but because the British had controlled Iran and its financial interest and its oil for so long, it was treated as a colony. So one episode was about that, and it was about the coup. A lot of diplomats and politicians were interviewed who were still alive at the time in the early ’80s.
Amongst the documents that we discovered in the basement in Paris of Mosaddegh’s grandson, because he was one of the historic advisors to the End of Empire program makers, was this transcript of an interview with Norman Darbyshire. Now, when I read this interview transcript, my mind was blown because he was so blunt. He was so clear. He was so open about his involvement, about the British involvement, about the motives, and the details were just staggering. Yet, when I watched the film, he wasn’t in the film, nor was the interview. That sort of sparked a whole chain reaction of trying to trace either the tape or film, if he might have been filmed. That led to a dead end. We got Ralph Fiennes to come in and become the avatar for Norman Darbyshire and bring his words to life on the screen. Those words were never seen in public in a movie of this scale, and that’s our claim to be the first to do that.
As you say, until Darbyshire came along, this was always known as the CIA coup, the Kermit Roosevelt coup. Kermit Roosevelt was a smart guy, Harvard educated and all that. He didn’t speak Persian. He was only in Iran for three weeks. Darbyshire was in Iran since he was a 19-year-old soldier. He grew up essentially in Iran. He spoke better Persian than me. He knew the Iranian street. He had all the smarts. He had all the connections. He really understood the psychology of the Iranian mob, as he says in his interview. He was the real mastermind.
In fact, the British were the people who came up with the idea for the coup, instigated by British Petroleum to regain control of what they thought was their property, and they drag the Americans in. So this was never a CIA coup. It was an MI6 coup aided by the CIA who were convinced to come in and help, of course, in exchange for oil. We even have documents in which the Americans are saying, “Yeah, we’ll help you with this coup, but we need some of that oil.” It turned out to be exactly the case, with 40% going to the American oil companies.
What’s fascinating about the Darbyshire arbitrary interview is this, the people who made the program have kicked up a huge fuss. They created a smear campaign since the film came out, picking on this one thing. We never filmed him. His interview was an off-the-record recording. Just the absurdity in that one sentence: How can a recording of an interview be off the record? Why would a seasoned spy, an MI6 officer, go on the record being recorded in an off-the-record interview? He knew exactly what he was doing. He had his own reasons for spilling the beans. Professional envy could be one.
Don’t forget, he was giving this interview in the early ’80s. The Iranian Revolution was still fresh, and he’d seen his handiwork all come apart. His protégé, the Shah, and Darbyshire had a very close relationship with the Shah. When he was in Iran, he would go and visit him in the palace every fortnight. He had an audience with the Shah. The Shah was on the run. By that time, he’d already died. Iran was in turmoil. He may have been thinking, “What the hell did I do?” and he had sort of some crisis of conscious. It could have been professional rivalry because he was on the rise in MI6, but he retired early. He ended up not in a great situation having to sell secondhand arms. The stuff we found out about Darbyshire since the film is as mind-blowing and as surreal and crazy as what’s in the film.
When we released the film, End of Empire threatened to sue us for defamation, the producers of End of Empire, Brian Lapping, Norma Percy, Mark Anderson, and Alison Roper. Mark Anderson, Alison Roper feature in the film. They’re the researcher and director you see being interviewed in the cutting room. They never actually hired lawyers. They never sent us any legal documents, no notices. They just simply created a smear campaign to divert and distract attention from the core truth at the heart of the film. They say we had an off-the-record pre-interview for research purposes only to guide us with our interviews with other interviewees who appear in the film. That’s complete BS because none of the most striking, staggering revelations in Darbyshire’s interview are in their film. They didn’t even interview other people about the points that he raises.
Our film, and they admit this themselves, is the first to reveal the Darbyshire interview in full in the most dramatic cinematic way, and that’s why we made the film. This is a cinematic history document doing something that no other documentary about the coup has done. 90% of the credit, by the way, goes to the great Walter Murch, the editor and co-writer of this film, a legend in cinema, Walter Murch of Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, the Godfather movies, The English Patient. I am not the world’s best documentary maker, but I am the luckiest by far to have Walter commit 10 years of his life to this film. He’s the heart and soul and brain. The skills, the artistry of bringing out the minutia of Coup 53 onto the screen is Walter Murch. I just got lucky finding the stuff.
Chris Hedges: I wanted to stop you there because I think the reason that the producers were so angry was because you raised the very legitimate question as to whether MI6 came in and said, “There’s no way that this is ever going to be public.”
Taghi Amirani: Exactly, exactly. All due respect to them, they end up with the most significant historic interview with a man who ran the coup, an event that’s still shaping Anglo-Iranian relations, Iran’s relation with the West. The Iranians are still suffering the consequences of the coup. We’re still living with it 70 years later. And they couldn’t use this interview. Either they couldn’t or they decided not to, we don’t know. They haven’t come clean about it.
An Iranian filmmaker comes along, backed with Walter Murch and Ralph Fiennes and some incredible filmmakers and brings this to life. There’s an echo of professional rivalry that Darbyshire has suffered with Kermit, with this guy, possibly. As I say, the HD, the historic dimension, the British have not come clean. They didn’t come clean in 1983. Darbyshire went rogue. He definitely went rogue. Nobody is questioning the veracity and the accuracy of that interview. They’ve confirmed this is his interview. He said those things. An MI6 officer, a senior level MI6 officer who masterminded in 1953 overthrow of Iranian democracy has gone rogue and put it out there. We found it. We brought it onto the screen. We shared it with the world. The reviews confirm the astonishing level of revelation.
Walter Murch says out of all the movies he’s ever worked on, this is the best reviewed ever. We’ve had global, global response to the film. We do not have distribution. That is mind-blowing. This film is the most successful film that Walter Murch has made in critical acclaim, in audience response. We self-distributed. We broke box office record on our own from our kitchen tables in the middle of COVID. Distributors would come, would be blown away. They came to Telluride, our world premier. The guy from Sony Pictures Classics came over to my producer and said, “This is terrific. We get back to New York on Monday. We want to talk about global distribution.” He vanished. That scenario has repeated itself over and over again. Nobody says, “We can’t distribute your film because it’s a piece of crap.” Nobody says it doesn’t really work as a movie. Nobody says it’s not really working as a documentary. They love it. They vanish.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about, one of the things about that Darbyshire interview is… because the head of police is loyal to Mosaddegh and is brutally tortured and assassinated. They asked Darbyshire whether the British were involved. His first answer is yes. But I want to go on to who Mosaddegh was, and I want to talk about the role of British Petroleum. Because like so many colonial corporations, they would extract resources, as they did out of Iran, and Iran had no idea how much oil, what the revenue was. They were just never told. It was complete theft. It was, of course, incredibly important to the British Empire. In fact, the Iranian oil fields saw the conversion of, under Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in the early part of the century, convert them from coal to oil.
So let’s talk about, first, the presence of the British, what they were doing, and then who Mosaddegh was because he was a remarkable, incorruptible, brilliant figure. Bringing him down did so much destruction to not only destroying Iran’s democracy, but of course, affecting in a very negative way hundreds if not millions of lives.
Taghi Amirani: Not many people know that British Petroleum was born in Iran. It was first the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, then became the Anglo-Iranian right up to the coup, and it finally came out as British Petroleum, BP. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was essentially working as a state within state. It was very much like the East India Company in India. It ran not just the Khuzestan region and Abadan, the refinery town. It had its fingers in every pie in every section of Iranian society. They bribed the members of Parliament. They interfered at every level of Iranian society. So they were essentially a finger in every pie colonial power.
Absolutely, as you say, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was the biggest overseas asset of the British state. It was a highly, highly profitable asset. Iranians were not allowed to look at the books. They had no idea what profits were being made. They were supposed to get 16% of the profits, but that was going to be calculated in London after they paid their own taxes. But the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was owned by the British state, so it was essentially paying tax to itself. By the time they did all the creative accounting and cooking the books, Iranians got nothing.
Mosaddegh came along. He was a highly educated, cultured, and secular leader. He came to power quite late in life. He ran on the ticket of nationalizing Iranian oil and reforming elections because the elections were corrupt and nobody really would get into power without bribery and some British control. As soon as he got into office, he wrote his own death sentence because the British decided to get rid of him as soon as he nationalized Iranian oil and came into office.
In those 28 months, Iran had the closest brush with a fledgling democracy. It could have gone a different way. It’s one of those biggest “what if” questions of history. What if he could stay and deliver his dream of democracy for Iran and independence and control of our resources? It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen, and we’re living with the consequences. The document supporting this are undeniable. The Darbyshire interview confirms it. He actually says, there’s a line in the interview that we bring to life. I’m the one asking the question sitting in for the End of Empire interviewee, “Could the British not have done a deal with him or come to some arrangement?” He said no. They wanted to get rid of him as soon as they got into office. It wasn’t like, “We had to get rid of him because he wasn’t negotiating with us. We didn’t reach a compromise.” There was no compromise ever in their mind.
He became a symbol of democracy. He’s still a symbol of secular democracy for Iranians. The trigger for this film for me was, in 2009, post-election crisis, the Green Movement of the Ahmadinejad election that was called into question and led to protests. I was there trying to film the elections, but I decided not to because it was getting too chaotic, and I stopped. I just decided to be an observer. In fact, I stayed at home and All the Shah’s Men was on my friend’s bookshelf. Even though I had the book in London, I’d never read it because I thought, “Why would an American tell me what’s happening in my country?” I had time. I read the book. It’s brilliant. It’s a page-turner.
I saw on the streets young protestors holding Mosaddegh’s portrait, and these are kids born after the revolution. I thought, “Wow, this guy still means something to the young Iranians fighting for some kind of freedom and democracy.” The combination of reading the book and seeing his portrait on the streets, I thought, “This is my next movie.” This was in 2009. It took 10 years before it finished in 2019.
Chris Hedges: I want to spend the last 10 minutes talking about the tactics. You’re talking about Stephen Kinzer’s book. David Talbot also wrote a good book called The Devil’s Chessboard. Kinzer’s book, All the Shah’s Men, is brilliant, like all of his stuff. But let’s talk about the tactics because these are the tactics that, as I mentioned in the introduction, are just the template used over and over and over and over. So what are they? How does it work?
Taghi Amirani: Yeah, it’s repeat and rinse, repeat and rinse-
Chris Hedges: Repeat and rinse, right.
Taghi Amirani: … repeat and rinse. The 1953 coup was essentially the first time the newly-born CIA went off campus and played, encouraged and pulled in by the British, and it went well. In the short term, this was a huge success. They got what they wanted. It was relatively cheap. It was quick. No American lives were lost. A few Iranians died, but who cares about that? So it was seen as a huge success. So, of course, in 1954, they did the same in Guatemala. As you list in your opening, it went on and on and on. This year we are marking the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup with Pinochet and Allende, 70th anniversary of the Iranian coup. It’s buying military officers, paying the mob, and assassinating anyone who might get in the way. This has happened several times. It wasn’t just in Iran. Getting rid of General Afshartous was a critical turning point. It was like pulling the rug from under Mosaddegh’s feet and paved the way for the coup.
Chris Hedges: The press too.
Taghi Amirani: Propaganda-
Chris Hedges: They bought the press off.
Taghi Amirani: Yeah, was just coming to that. They bought the press off. The CIA officer would sit in Langley and write-
Chris Hedges: I know.
Taghi Amirani: … anti-Muslim-
Chris Hedges: Amazing.
Taghi Amirani: … propaganda. Send it to Tehran. It gets translated into Persian and appear in newspapers the next day. Richard Cotton, the CIA agent who did that, is in our film. He’s from the archive of End of Empire. End of Empire’s archive is fascinating, by the way, because when we got access to all the unused footage, all of it, like 500 minutes or something, it was quite a lot of material, they left out the most incendiary, revelatory content. Why would you film these people telling you this incredible stuff and then put a whitewashed, tame version of it in your film, putting aside the fact that they didn’t use the star witness, Darbyshire, at all? They’re very, very clear about what they’re talking about in terms of propaganda. Smearing Mosaddegh, “He’s a communist. He’s a homosexual. He’s a British agent,” anything they could write. In a way, some of the smear campaign techniques used against Mosaddegh have been used against Coup 53 itself, the film, and that will be in our follow-up coda, Coup 53.1.
Chris Hedges: Let me ask about the Shah. As I mentioned before we went on the air, my father was a cryptographer in Iran during World War II. Because he had high security clearance when they were overthrowing the Shah’s father, who was, the American saw with perhaps some justification, as being sympathetic to the Germans and a very powerful, tyrannical figure and replaced him with his very weak son. My father was his bodyguard until they got rid of the father for a while. Let’s talk about the Shah. Even the CIA finds him amazingly cowardly, indecisive, a very weak figure. At one point, Darbyshire goes to Rome and bribes the sister who actually has a strong personality that her brother doesn’t, I think they were twins, right, were they twins-
Taghi Amirani: [inaudible 00:24:33].
Chris Hedges: … and fly her back after giving her a mink coat and a lot of money. But talk about the Shah because he’s the front guy for British Petroleum, the CIA, and then of course, disaster… And SAVAK’s important because that was formed by the CIA. It becomes one of the most repressive secret police agencies in the world. But let’s talk about what they put in place of Mosaddegh.
Taghi Amirani: The Shah was weak, indecisive, vacillating, highly suspicious. He would always take the advice of the last person who came into the room, and whoever that was, that’s the path he followed. Even his father wasn’t really respecting his son’s authority and his power. There’s a rumor, it’s an anecdotal thing, “I really wish your sister had the balls because she would make a better king than you. If only Ashraf,” the twin sister, “was in charge.” She definitely was a very powerful, authoritative, and a strong woman.
The Shah was toyed with. I think he feared… He thought they were out to get him because he knew that they got rid of his father. They thought they were trying to get rid of him. It took a long time to persuade him to go along with the coup because he wasn’t quite sure who was playing who. It took a lot of cajoling. Finally, as you say, it’s his sister who went to Iran to persuade him to sign the release, sign the firman for the coup. As with all weak dictators, they become more authoritarian as they go along. The Shah was backed by the CIA in setting up the SAVAK Secret Service.
I grew up the first 15 years of my life under the SAVAK. My teachers were arrested by SAVAK when I was at school. So I sort of know that experience firsthand. Books that were banned by the Shah’s Secret Service, and if you were caught with them, you’d be in trouble, we used to hide them in school under desks. Clandestinely pass them around, finish reading them, and pass them on. Then there was one late night saying that they’re going from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for banned books. So my father and I went into the garden at the middle of the night burying books next to the radishes. The red and the radish and the books are sort of imprinted in my brain.
SAVAK was set up by the CIA in order to keep the Shah in power because they knew he was a weak man. We have Stephen Meade, the military intelligence officer. In props, perhaps the only interview he ever gives, he gives to End of Empire. They didn’t use him. You have the man who essentially helped the Shah set up SAVAK, he says so. They didn’t use him. He says, “Yeah, I went to Iran. I was sent by Eisenhower personally in September 1953 after the coup to help him stay in power by setting up SAVAK.” The torture techniques, very much CIA techniques. That’s why when ’79 happened, even though the British were behind the coup, it was “Death to America,” the bigger chant than “Death to the British.”
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about blowback. Let’s end there, the 1979… I do think we have to mention that the 1979 Revolution was not… It was seized by the clerics and Khomeini, but certainly on the university campuses, most of those kids were communists. They were crushed by Khomeini, but there were powerful secular elements that were also trying to overthrow the Shah. They were wiped out once Khomeini came into power. But it wasn’t a religious movement. It may have been out of Qom and places like that, but certainly in Tehran it wasn’t.
Taghi Amirani: It became so increasingly. It was a mass popular movement. It had a huge cross-section of society: the intellectuals, the writers, the artists, the workers. It was very much a popular revolution. What the Shah did was he crushed all civil institutions, unions, any kind of organization that could come together, political parties. There were no parties. There were two parties. There was a Yes party and a Yes, Sir party.
So the only section of Iranian society that was allowed to flourish and continue was the mosque, and that was a very powerful network, on the ground, grassroot. That’s why, come the revolution, they were the most organized who could get together, and they had a very charismatic leader. The rest of the Iranian society didn’t have the framework, didn’t have the structure. It was a very much an uprising that started in ’53. It took a long time. It took 25 years of solid iron-fisted dictatorship and oppression that blew up.
The most fascinating picture I’ve seen of the revolution isn’t the mobs and isn’t the street crowds and all the shootings and everything else. Soon after the revolution, Mosaddegh’s portraits are on the sidewalks everywhere in Tehran being sold. Because if you had a picture of Mosaddegh under the Shah, you could be arrested. If you had one of his books, you could be arrested. Suddenly, he came out. He died in March ’67. The revolution was in February ’79. March ’79, on the anniversary of Mosaddegh death, for the first time, Iranians could actually go and visit his grave at his house. Over a million people marched in the dead of winter across fields to get to his house to pay their respects. That tells you where the Iranian heart and soul was. The biggest, most glamorous, longest street in Tehran, it’s an amazing avenue. It goes from the very northern tip of the city from the foothills of the Alborz Mountain to the deep south. It’s a beautifully tree-lined street. It was called Pahlavi Avenue after the Shah. After the revolution, it was renamed Mosaddegh for six months before they changed the name.
Chris Hedges: That was Taghi Amirani on his documentary film, Coup 53. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.
Speaker 4: The Chris Hedges Report gets some extra time now with a few minutes of bonus material with Chris and his guest.
Chris Hedges: Just in this last 10 minutes, let’s talk about Iran today. I worked in Iran and loved Iran. Was there frequently. Deported twice, once in handcuffs, and the other time I was up by the Caspian and thrown in a jail cell by these popular militias known as the Basij who were going to put me on trial because I was a spy, although why a non-Farsi speaking person with blonde hair would be a very effective spy walking around Iran, I don’t know. Then a policeman came and got me out of the jail cell at 2:00 in the morning and gave me back my passport and escorted me a few miles outside of the city, and then told me to keep driving to Tehran. I remember I tried to give him some money, and he said, “I don’t want any money.” He had been a policeman under the old regime. He said, “I hate these people. Just go.” So let’s talk about Iran today. It’s a fascinating country. I don’t find the anti-American sentiment there, particularly at the lower levels, I think, because of the hatred for the Islamic government. Let’s talk about what’s happened to Iran.
Taghi Amirani: I always hesitate to say exactly what’s happening in Iran because Iran is constantly changing. It’s in a state of flux. It’s a very unpredictable place, and nothing is what it seems. So I hesitate to be a commentator from afar. I wonder how there are so many commentators who become experts on Iranian events from afar because people living in Iran can’t always tell what’s going on. There’s layer and layer and layer of understanding of the political structure, the power structure, and different factions. The conspiracy mind, the idea that there’s always something else going on and not trusting everyone, has deep roots in the way Iran was treated by outsiders, and some Iranians collaborated with outsiders in all sorts of events.
I’ll give you an example. I haven’t commented on the events since September last year because I see myself as a filmmaker and observer, not a political activist. I’m a storyteller, and I’ve tried to keep to the facts and tell stories based on stuff that I find that I can trust and fact check. What I have done since September ’22, since the Mahsa Amini incident, is document and collect social media posts, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, tweets, everything, interviews, everything. It’s like terabytes and terabytes of material, and I kind of document, watch, observe, collate, categorize. By far, the most astute, intelligent, historically knowledgeable commentary is coming from young Iranians inside Iran, period. That gives me hope. That gives me hope.
Back in 2003, I made a film for PBS, Channel 13, in New York, a documentary series called Wide Angle, an international documentary series. I went to Iran and made a documentary about an Iranian reformist newspaper. This was in the last days of Khatami. There was reform in the air, and there was freedom of expression, and reformist newspapers where we were journalists were having a time. I got access to go behind the scenes and spend time with these journalists. Coming from the West as a Western educated Iranian, you go in with some sort of arrogance. You think, “I’m a Western educated guy. I know stuff.” I tell you, within a week I was so humbled. I was so crushed by the wealth of knowledge and the expertise and insight of these young journalists. I thought, “Just shut up and film and say nothing.” That was 2003.
So the future lies in the hands of Iranians, not outsiders. The idea that any change can happen from outside is ludicrous and pointless. It has never worked. It will never work. There’s an old saying, it’s an anecdote. A French statesman has gone on a state visit to China, and there’s a great big banquet. The French politician turns to the Chinese elder statesman and says, “What do you think of the French Revolution?” He says, “It’s too soon to say.” Iran’s revolution is 44 years old. It’s going through the crisis and the ups and downs, and old revolutions eat their children.
I’m, in the long term, optimistic. In the short term, I don’t know. I wish Trump hadn’t torn up the nuclear deal like a spoiled baby. I wish that had continued. I don’t think sanctions ever, ever topple governments. They make the people suffer. If the sanctions were going to work, they would’ve worked by now. Toughening sanctions don’t help the Iranians. And I know. I’ve just come back and I see the shortage of medicine. I see the inflation. I see the prices. I see how ordinary people are affected. It doesn’t improve their lives, and it will never topple any government. Short-term pessimism, long-term optimism.
People often say to me, “Why didn’t you make a film about the revolution? That’s another big turning point.” I say, “Well, it’s a) too soon, and b) it took me 10 years to make Coup 53. It’s going to be my granddaughter or my grandson who’s going to have to tell the story of the revolution when all this stuff is available and you can really dig deep into it.
Chris Hedges: But you also have this drum beat from Netanyahu for war, going to war with Iran.
Taghi Amirani: Oh, that’s been going on for decades. How many times have you seen Netanyahu at the UN with this cartoon [inaudible 00:37:18]-
Chris Hedges: Yeah, exactly.
Taghi Amirani: … a cartoon with a bomb with a little thing. It’s like Wile E. Coyote at the UN. That’s kind of a deadbeat drumbeat from Netanyahu. That’s never going to stop. People don’t know until they watch Coup 53 that the CIA set up SAVAK, and then they handed it over to Mossad.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, that’s right. The Israelis were very important.
Taghi Amirani: There were very close ties between the Shah and the Israelis and military cooperation and the Secret Police cooperation. I don’t know. The hold that Netanyahu has on American government is something that I can’t talk about because that’s just such a minefield. It’s such a minefield, especially for Iranians. I should just shut the hell up on that.
Chris Hedges: When you look back on the… Let’s call them what they are. These are crimes against the Iranian people. You were intimately involved in documenting all of this for almost a decade. What did it do to you as an Iranian? What did it do to you emotionally?
Taghi Amirani: That’s the most important question that you’ve asked me because this film has been driven by personal desire to unearth the history of this coup. I grew up with the story of Mosaddegh as a kid. I couldn’t even understand what it was about. I didn’t even know what the word was. My grandparents and parents would stay up late at night talking about history and events, and every now and then they would whisper, “Mosaddegh.” I’d think, “Why are they whispering this one word?” I kind of put pieces together and realized they were whispering his name the day he had died, and it was only word of mouth that people found out because he wasn’t even mentioned in newspapers properly. He didn’t even get a headline: “Mosaddegh has died.”
So I grew up with this. Suffering the ups and downs and the upheaval of political turmoil and crisis pre-revolution, post-revolution in Iran, I had to get this off my chest. It’s a scar that’s still undermines the psyche of all Iranians. It has shaped Iranian sense of themselves and their relationship with the West. What it did to me, it was cathartic to get this out of my system. I didn’t know it was going to take 10 years. We were going to make this film in eight months and get it to Sundance in 2012, win a prize, and get distribution. It took another 10 years. It got a lot of accolades, and it still hasn’t got distribution because they’re scared. I’m going to screw up this quote. What is that thing about the long arc of history?
Chris Hedges: It bends towards justice. That’s Martin Luther King.
Taghi Amirani: Yeah, exactly. Thank you. One day I’ll get that quote right. I know it was Dr. King. So it’s taken 70 years for the truth of the coup to come out, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be at the right place in the right environment with the right team to make it happen. It saddens me that we’re still living with its consequences. It’s really difficult to be an Iranian, and it’s a really heartbreaking thing to be an Iranian filmmaker having to tell these kind of stories where there’s so much more you can make movies about us. There’s such rich history and texture and poetry and architecture and landscape. It goes back thousands of years. Iranians were doing science and astronomy and amazing architecture when there was no America.
So it’s such a brutal twist of fate that such an incredible nation, such an amazing people, such rich history should be in this situation right now with such great talent and such resources, such unbelievable resources. The great Robert Fisk, he was talking about Iraq. He’d written a book. I think he’s written this big giant book. He was talking about the Iraq War. He said, “We wouldn’t be in Iraq if the only thing that Iraq exported was turnips.”
Chris Hedges: Of course.
Taghi Amirani: It’s oil. It’s always been oil. It’s still oil. Until we run out of oil, we’re going to be in Iranian coup and other military intervention. We made a film about the Iraq War as well, and that was a soul-destroying film to make. Isn’t there a bumper sticker in the States where it says, “Why is our oil under their sand?”
Chris Hedges: Right, right.
Taghi Amirani: That’s the price we pay for sitting on this black curse of oil in Iran. If we didn’t have the oil, we wouldn’t be in this trouble. We would be a much more advanced nation relying on other things.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Taghi Amirani on his documentary film, Coup 53.