Editing the ‘Secret War’

Declassified CIA records show Britain's joint involvement in 1953 Iran coup

The secret service only work to protect us against enemies. This is the government’s line and it is the one portrayed by the Imperial War Museum’s “Secret War” exhibition. Such an idealised claim can only be made by ignoring significant parts of the historical record and, unfortunately, IWM’s ‘Secret War’ exhibition does just this.

IWM dedicates a significant part of its “Secret War” exhibition to the Special Air Service (SAS) rescue mission during the 1980 Iran Embassy siege, in London. Six gunmen from an Iranian-Arab group seeking the establishment of an Arab state in the Iranian province of Khuzestan had seized the Iranian embassy and taken twenty-seven people hostage, mainly embassy staff. The hostage-takers demanded that the British government enforce the release of Arab prisoners in Khuzestan and give them safe passage out of the UK. The government refused and, after the hostage-takers killed a hostage, sent in the SAS. Abseiling from the roof of the building, the special forces stormed the embassy, killing five of the hostage-takers and rescuing all but one of the captured.

Not included in the “Secret War” exhibition is the British involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mossadegh, and subsequent imposition of the brutal regime of the Shah. British and US joint execution of the coup has recently been formally acknowledge in declassified CIA documents.

A CIA summary document states: “It was the aim of the TPAJAX project to cause the fall of the Mossadeq government; to restablish the prestige and power of the Shah; and to replace the Mossadeq government with one which would govern Iran according to constructive policies. Specifically, the aim was bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party.”

Mossadegh’s chief crime was to successfully put forward a bill to the Iranian Parliament to nationalise Iran’s oil industry, removing it from the hands of the British company, Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP). Britain’s government, lead by Winston Churchill, could not accept losing what it considered its property and was ready to employ terrorist tactics as recourse.

The CIA documents confirm British involvement in the coup: “In April (1953) it was determined that CIA should conduct the envisioned operation jointly with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). By the end of April, it was decided that CIA and SIS officers would draw up a plan on Cyprus which would be submitted to CIA and SIS Headquarters, and to the Department of State and the Foreign Office for final approval.”

The plan involved a propaganda campaign to inflame existing discontent regarding the weak economic situation in Iran and the bribery of mobs to riot and march on Mossadegh’s residence in Tehran. A struggle broke out in which 300-800 people were killed. Mossadegh was arrested and subsequently tried in a military court. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment and then consigned to house arrest for the rest of his life. Many of his supporters were imprisoned and some given death sentences.

Following the coup, the Shah was restored to power as an absolute monarch for 26 years. He was supported during this time by the US and Britain and his secret service SAWAK, trained by the CIA, developed a fearsome reputation. Two of the hostage-takers in the 1980 Iran Embassy attack claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured by the SAWAK.

Such examples of British secret service involvement in aggression and terrorism are not rare. During the lifetime of the British empire, special forces infilitrated and attacked nationalist movements, resulting in many deaths and leaving a terrible legacy, whether in Kenya, Congo or Indonesia.

Even in recent times, British secret service (and the US’) played a role in the misinformation campaign that prepared the way for an attack on Iraq in 2003. False information was spread regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal and his supposed connection to 9/11 and al Qaeda to create a pretext for aggression. Allegations of torture and abuse have been made against British forces in Iraq. British secret services, in the least, provided intelligence to US forces, enabling them to kidnap suspects who would, in many cases, go on to be tortured.

The revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, have shown that Britain’s GCHQ agency has been actively supporting its American counterparts in hoovering up Internet records and phone information on vast swathes of the public – regardless of suspicion or activity. Such untrammelled invasion into the lives – and sharing with other governments – of the citizenry creates real scope for government abuse, especially in suppressing dissent against its policies.

For the Imperial War Museum, or any other source, to overlook the secret services role as an agent of anti-democratic and, sometimes, brutal government policies, is to severely misrepresent the historical record and undermine its own credibility as a source.