Memories of a potent era for British foreign affairs are available on Channel 4, where The Queen and the Coup retells the story of the 1953 coup d’etat in Iran. Under the influence and instruction of MI6 and the CIA, the democratic prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was replaced by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as a bulwark against the USSR and to preserve western oil interests. The ramifications of the operation are still being felt today, from Gaza to Yemen, a trail of bloodshed and misery lasting nearly 70 years.
The new documentary is based on the work of two British historians, professors Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac, who have been scouring the US archives for documents released by the State Department. There is no shortage of grisly meddling to go over, and Aldrich and Cormac, the main talking heads between all the archive footage, are obviously enthused by their subject. The coup was a pivotal moment for British foreign affairs. If the final years and aftermath of the Second World War hadn’t already done so, it proved that empire was over. Diplomatic work of this kind was no longer possible without American support. Although the plan was initiated by Clement Attlee, it was continued by Churchill after his re-election in 1951.
The big question is: where does Her Maj fit into all this? Given the documentary’s title and the way her involvement is trailed in the opening minutes, I half-expect her to parachute into Tehran, or at least order someone to, Danny Boyle Olympic opening ceremony-style. Instead, her involvement comprises a couple of telegrams sent by the Foreign Office in February 1953 to their American counterparts, as discovered in the archives.
“The Foreign Office informed us of receipt of message from Antony Eden from Queen Elizabeth expressing concern RE Shah and strong hope we can find some means of dissuading him from leaving the country.”
This message made its way to the Shah, who at the time was packing his bags and getting ready to hightail it out of there. The strong implication is that, believing he had received one message from a friendly head of state to another, he stayed put. As the figurehead of the new government, he was a vital component of the coup, but he was naturally suspicious of the British government. During the Second World War, Churchill had forced his father out of power when he refused to back the British cause.
But – spoiler alert – this was not actually the monarch, only a year into her reign, staging a direct intervention in a secret coup. The British quickly sent another cable clarifying their earlier statement. By Queen Elizabeth, they had not meant Queen Elizabeth herself, but the ship of the same name on which Anthony Eden was travelling to Canada. Whether by deviousness or design, the message did the trick and the Shah stayed put.
Perhaps this revelation sings with historical weight for scholars of the era, but for the casual viewer, and I’m afraid on Channel 4 on Sunday night there will be a few of those, it’s hard not to shrug. The events of the past week, with thousands protesting and statues of slavers being torn down, have proved that the ghosts of empire are far from laid to rest. Britain’s misadventures in the Middle East deserve closer scrutiny, but it ought to be enough to sell them on their own. The tangential reference to the Queen might lure a few viewers, but it’s a misleading title. There is a good reason the Queen does not intervene in foreign affairs. She wants to keep her name out of things. I expect she wouldn’t want her name used on this serviceable documentary, either.
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