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7 decades later, remember the anniversary of the 1953 Iran coup

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran that was fomented by the U.S. and the U.K. The country's democratically elected prime minister was ousted in favor of a pro-Western shah, and it was the end of democracy in Iran. It then colored the 1979 revolution against the shah with an anger toward the U.S. and the West. While the U.S. has acknowledged its role in the coup, the British government has not.

Former British foreign secretary David Owen is now calling on the British government to finally admit its involvement, which has been further publicized by a critically acclaimed documentary film called "Coup 53." We have the director of that film, Taghi Amirani, with us, along with former British foreign secretary David Owen. Thank you both for joining me.

TAGHI AMIRANI: Thank you.

DAVID OWEN: Thank you.

FADEL: So, Secretary Owen, I wanted to start with you. In an interview this week, you called on the British government to admit its involvement in the coup. Why do you think it's important for the government to do that now, all these years later?

OWEN: It seems to cause some problem for some people that we've not formally admitted it. And I think the best way to end this controversy is to just say everybody's known about it for many, many years. If it helps for us to admit it, we're perfectly prepared to do so. I mean, it's a minor issue, frankly. And the history of it is pretty well known in this country, and nobody disputes it.

FADEL: Mr. Amirani, why is it so important to tell this story? You worked on this film for 10 years. I mean, it's 70 years ago now.

AMIRANI: The 1953 coup isn't just something that derailed Iran's hopes for democracy, for oil for BP's sake. It affected the region. It affected CIA's own sense of its own power. It emboldened them to go and repeat and rinse the coup in lots of other countries - '54 in Guatemala, many other countries across Latin America. It has scarred the psyche of Iranian nation. It may not matter so much to the British. You know the victors forget. The victims never forget. It's still a scar. And I think it'll - the truth can set the British free. It can clear the air. Britain has a problem of facing its crimes and its history. It's good for the soul of the British nation to come clean.

FADEL: Secretary Owen, do you think the situation in Iran today, in 2023, under this repressive theocracy came to be because of that coup in 1953?

OWEN: No, I don't. I think it takes a big stretch of the imagination. The shah was already in office, and he continued, arguably, a little bit more strengthened, but there was a continuity of his control. What changed Iran, I hope not irrevocably, was the rule of the ayatollahs, which took place when the shah left the country in 1979.

FADEL: Do you have the same view, Mr. Amirani?

AMIRANI: No. No. With all due respect, Lord Owen, the Iranian people see the revolution as a continuation of what happened in '53. It blew up. From the day Mossadegh came to power in 1951 till his overthrow in 1953, Iran had a tiny window, a tiny brush with democracy, a fledgling democracy.

FADEL: You're referring to the elected prime minister that was overthrown in 1953.

AMIRANI: Yes. And it'll be one of those what-if questions, one of the biggest what-if questions - what if that was allowed to develop? Where would it have gone? There's no question if the coup hadn't happened, if he hadn't been overthrown and the shah wasn't put back in power, we wouldn't have had the '79 revolution. The cause and effect is undeniable. History has to be acknowledged. History matters. The causes matter. For a lot of Americans, Iran became a hot topic during the hostage crisis of '79. But nobody knew - the question was why do they hate us so much? Why, suddenly, out of nowhere? It didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of '53.

FADEL: Secretary Owen, you were the foreign minister in the '70s, in the last years of the shah's rule and up until the revolution. If you could talk about the way that coup in 1953 had a lasting impact on the British-Iranian relationship.

OWEN: I don't think that it had much effect. It may have given Britain an access to the shah, which we would not have had. The real problem with the shah is that he was in power but not exercising power.

FADEL: Despite the failures of the past and the tense relationships, ups and downs between the U.S., the U.K. and Iran, today, what do you see as the possibility with that relationship and even the type of support that growing democratic movements do need there from the West, if any support is needed?

OWEN: Well, I think there's a real chance. It's clear that President Biden's administration is trying to get a situation where the past can be forgotten or at least placed in proper perspective and a new future. And so he's dealing with the hostage crisis.

FADEL: You're referring to the prisoner deal that just recently happened?

OWEN: Yeah. Yeah. It's very important. It's a hell of a big step. America's foreign policy matters to all of us. And we will not get peace in the Middle East, in Israel and Palestine, until we get the sort of dialogue that is starting to develop, which is Saudis talking to Iran and both talking to America.

FADEL: And just for our listeners, this is the deal that was reached with five American detainees who will eventually be allowed to leave Iran in exchange for getting access to $6 billion for humanitarian purposes. Mr. Amirani, I want to ask you the same question. How can both the U.S. and the U.K. improve their relations with Iran?

AMIRANI: The best advice I can give to Western powers and Western activists is actually do nothing. Let the Iranians do it themselves. If it's going to be long-lasting, without any suspicion of foreign interference and meddling, it has to be Iranians for themselves. By far, the most astute, most informed, knowledgeable and smartest commentary comes from the young Iranians inside Iran. They are way ahead of everybody else. They know their history. They've read books. They know what to do. Any idea that change can come in Iran from outside is a mistaken idea and should just be stopped. Let the Iranians do it themselves. They have to gain it for themselves on their own terms. And they can.

(SOUNDBITE OF LABRADFORD'S "UP TO PIZMO")

FADEL: That's "Coup 53" filmmaker Taghi Amirani, along with former British foreign secretary David Owen. They joined me to talk about the 70th anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF LABRADFORD'S "UP TO PIZMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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