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Source: Guardian

Aug 15, 2023

‘Written out of the history books’: the British spy who planned Iranian coup

Norman Darbyshire had a modest upbringing but had a knack for adaptation and languages that helped him to make influential contacts and depose a prime minister

By Julian Borger

Seventy years ago, the fate of Iran hung in the balance, when a US-UK coup to oust the elected prime minister appeared to have failed. The CIA was ready to pull the plug on the operation, but a 28-year-old British intelligence officer, monitoring events from a clandestine base in Cyprus, insisted on persevering.

The coup – which took place this week 70 years ago – ultimately succeeded, Mohammad Mosadegh, the leader who was popular in Iran for nationalising a British-run oil-field, was detained, and the Shah flew back to Tehran, strengthened.

Most intelligence work is collecting information. It is rare for a spy to change the course of history in the way this MI6 officer, Norman Darbyshire, did in 1953. British interests were restored in the short term but the shah went on to become a reviled dictator, paving the way for the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the state of enmity between Iran and the west that has endured ever since.

Despite the scale of events he set in train, very little was known about Darbyshire, who planned the putsch and was instrumental in its success. He had been put in charge of the operation by MI6 despite his young age, because he was fluent in Farsi and had already spent nearly a decade in Iran. From a collection of huts outside Nicosia known as the ‘stud farm’, Darbyshire rallied his agents to whip up protests in the street. This ultimately swung momentum from Mosadegh towards the shah.

In London, the coup was seen as a triumph, restoring partial control over Iranian oil fields, and sending a message that that post-imperial Britain could still wield clout around the world. Darbyshire seemed destined for the topof British intelligence, but his life and career were derailed by personal tragedy and he died in obscurity in 1993. His pivotal role in one of the most consequential events in modern Iranian history is only now coming into focus.

“Norman Darbyshire co-wrote the plan for the coup and took the leading role in directing the operation that overthrew Mosadegh and reinstalled the shah. This was his show,” said Taghi Amirani, the director of Coup 53, a documentary about the plot. “When the CIA was ready to abandon the coup after its initial failure on the 15th of August, Darbyshire on his own initiative called out the rent-a-mob and turned the tide in Britain’s favour.”

Norman Darbyshire, right, as a young soldier in Iran in 1946.

Handsome, suave and multilingual, the former special forces soldier was the closest M16 had to a real James Bond, albeit a James Bond with eight children.

Interviews with his relatives and friends portray a complicated man who started from modest beginnings in northern England, but could make himself at home and find friends and allies anywhere in the world. They also describe what it was like to grow up as the son or daughter of a British super-spy.

“He lived an extraordinary double life,” Anne Leahy, Darbyshire’s eldest child, said. “He was an amazing father in terms of being part of the family, having fun, and he was a very great entertainer.”

“He had great linguistic ability. He was fluent in French, fluent in Farsi, and could speak German and Arabic. Obviously he changed his accent as well because he was born in the far north, but we never heard him speak anything but what I call received English,” she added. “He transformed himself. He was an extraordinary self-made man. He left home at 17 basically and never looked back.”

The children grew up in Tehran, Beirut, Nicosia, Geneva and London, and wherever they lived, there was always an unusual array of house guests: the British explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger; senior MI6 officers like Nicholas Elliott; and the former CIA Middle East chief, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, who was Darbyshire’s co-conspirator in the 1953 coup.

When Darbyshire was MI6 head in Tehran in the 1960’s, his wife Manon and their family lived outside the embassy compounds in the well-to-do Niavaran district.

“They lived up there in the shadow of the mountains with a swimming pool. It was extremely comfortable and it was wonderful getting away from all the other diplomats,” said Hugh Sykes, a veteran BBC journalist who grew up in Tehran as the son of an embassy staffer.

There were expeditions into the Alborz highlands, with food and camping supplies carried alongside them on mules.

“It was the perfect cover for a spy,” Sykes reflected. “He was a fluent Farsi speaker, with a massive great family, often going off on tracks into the mountains.”

While his children and their friends were around the swimming pool, Darbyshire would sometimes slip away to meet contacts, most notably the Shah, a connection he had cultivated since they were both young men. They met twice a month, occasionally playing squash.

“He would take a little car that had no diplomatic plates, and no chauffeur, all incognito,” Leahy said.

For each of the children there was a moment of realisation that their father was not an ordinary diplomat. For Nicholas, the third oldest, the moment came when the family was living in Beirut.

“I opened a drawer in which I found no less than four passports all bearing my father’s photo but each with a different name,” he said.

Some of those who knew Darbyshire said he was adept at changing between identities because he was an outsider himself, accustomed to fitting in.

It was the norm at the time for senior MI6 officers to have a background in British public schools and Oxbridge. Darbyshire was a greengrocer’s son from Wigan, who joined the army after war broke out and was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a forerunner of the SAS. He was trained in Scotland and in 1943 was sent to Iran, which had been occupied by both the British and the Soviet Union, to keep the Germans away from the oil fields and supply lines open to the eastern front.

Over his first three and half years in Tehran as a soldier, Darbyshire started building up a network of contacts and his fluency in the language.

He later said he “moved a great deal in Persian circles in a way that other members of the embassy didn’t.”

“What is said politely in English at a cocktail party to an ambassador is very different from what emerges with a group of young people,” he said, in an interview recorded for a 1985 Granada television series, End of Empire, but never used. The programme makers said it had been off the record, and denied that it was edited out under government pressure. The UK has still not formally acknowledged its role in the coup.

Amirani came across the transcript of the interview in November 2016, among the papers of Mosadegh’s grandson, who had been a consultant on the Granada series. In Coup 53, Ralph Fiennes speaks the part of Darbyshire.

Young Norman was almost certainly first recruited to MI6 by his housemate in Tehran, Robin Zaehner, an academic expert on eastern religions and a British spy. He was an eccentric figure with thick glasses that magnified his eyes, a reedy voice, and a reputed weakness for opium.

One of Darbyshire’s tasks in Tehran was to act as Zaehner’s bag man, providing funds to recruit agents. “Vast sums of money were being spent,” he said. “He used to carry biscuit tins with damn great notes.”

Zaehner introduced him to his contacts, including Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the young shah, only five years older than Darbyshire, and to three brothers – Seyfollah, Asadollah, and Qodratollah Rashidian – anglophile, monarchist businessmen who would become Darbyshire’s most important agents.

After Mosadegh became prime minister in 1951, nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and expelling British diplomats the following year, the British government decided he had to be got rid of.

Darbyshire and an aide were tasked with putting together a plan to depose the prime minister, codenamed Operation Boot. When the Americans came on board in the spring of 1953, following the election of Dwight Eisenhower, it was renamed Operation Ajax, but the plan remained largely the same, with the shah and the Rashidians at its centre.

When the coup was launched on 15 August, things quickly went awry. Some of the coup plotters in the military failed to show up or feigned illness. The shah panicked and fled in a small plane to Baghdad, and Washington signalled that it was ready to abandon the plan.

Darbyshire and the Rashidians refused to give up and instead flooded the streets of Tehran with paid thugs to take on Mosadegh’s supporters and his allies among the communists in the Tudeh party. It was enough to convince army officers who had been sitting on the fence to join the shah’s cause.

The coup made Darbyshire MI6’s golden boy and a decade later, his star was still rising. He was back in Tehran, acting as Britain’s voice at the shah’s ear and living a pleasant life in the big house in northern Tehran. But the family’s whole life was about to come apart.

In November 1964, Darbyshire drove a visiting British intelligence officer to inspect some electronic listening posts near the Soviet border. He brought his wife, Manon, along for the ride, a scenic trip through the Alborz mountains down to the Caspian Sea.

On the way back on 13 November, the car skidded off the narrow mountain path and into a ravine. The visitor from London was killed on the spot. Manon was brought up to the road on a stretcher and died there.

Darbyshire, who had been at the wheel, was initially unscathed though he nearly died 13 months later from a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Told he would have to leave his post if he could not cope with his domestic life, he asked a family friend Maggie Burleigh, who was a teacher, to fly to Tehran to look after his six children, arranging to have her vetted.

“He said ‘you will see me coming and going all sorts of times in the day and night, but it is highly confidential’,” the friend, now Maggie Boswell, said. “It was all rather cloak and dagger.”

Darbyshire started dating a younger woman in the embassy’s intelligence section, Virginia Fell, and married her in April 1966 in an elaborate wedding held in the embassy and paid for by MI6.

At the age of 22, the new Mrs Darbyshire suddenly found herself the stepmother of six children, and she had two more with Norman, both girls. And from 1970, she would have to do that in the increasingly unstable environment of Beirut, where the family had a burly armed guard sleeping outside their door for protection.

All this time Darbyshire’s behaviour was becoming more erratic, and his drinking, always prodigious, got out of control.

“The truth is that after the accident and the brain haemorrhage, the combination of both was a turning point,” Peter, Darbyshire’s second oldest child, said. “He was not the same person. That was very clear to us as children.”

Soon after the family returned to Britain in 1975, the couple split up, and Darbyshire’s career crumbled in the years that followed. He still had aspirations to climb to the top, but his reputation as a hard-drinking maverick counted against him, and he resigned in 1979.

He had hoped to go into business in the Middle East but those plans were torpedoed by the Iranian revolution. Most of his contacts were killed, jailed or disappeared.

“He had been anticipating a fairly gilded life after retirement and that didn’t happen,” his son said.

Darbyshire died in June 1993 of a heart attack, while mowing his lawn at home. The service in Harrogate crematorium was one of the rare occasions that brought all eight of his children together. Boswell and a handful of other friends attended, but there was no one from his MI6 days.

After the fall of the shah and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the 1953 coup no longer looked like the masterstroke it once had, but there is no sign Darbyshire changed his mind. In his Granada interview, he insisted that if Mosadegh had been allowed to stay, the communists would ultimately have taken over his government.

“Then Russia would have achieved what she always wanted – access to the ports on the Gulf,” he said.

Virginia Darbyshire believes it was not second thoughts about the coup which haunted him, but the knowledge he had triumphed against the odds and hardly anyone knew about it.

“With the coup, he always felt he had been written out of the history books,” she said “I suppose he was quite bitter about it.”

Watch the film Coup 53 about the ousting of Mohammad Mosadegh.

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