Cover image of "Yesterday's Spy," a novel about the Iranian coup in 1953

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

On August 19, 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup d’etat jointly planned by the United States and Great Britain and led on the ground by the CIA. With the support of the country’s leading mullah, Abol-Ghasem Kashani, Americans under the command of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. restored Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi as Iran’s supreme leader. The shah’s brutal, dictatorial regime during the following two decades led directly to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that still echoes in today’s headlines. Now, British journalist Tom Bradby recalls the events of 1953 in Yesterday’s Spy, a fast-paced spy thriller loosely based on the history of the coup.

A veteran spy under suspicion as a mole

Bradby’s story unfolds in Tehran in 1953, with flashbacks to events in the 1930s and 1940s in the life of the eponymous spy, Harry Tower. His work for MI6 is the centerpiece of the tale. (“He was probably the most operationally experienced executive officer in SIS.”) A scholarship boy from a working-class family at Cambridge, he has never “fitted in” among the aristocrats and gentry who populate the Secret Intelligence Service. And his work, often under direct orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, has brought him under suspicion as a KGB spy.

Now, Harry has secretly flown to Tehran to find his son, a novice journalist for the Manchester Guardian, who has been kidnapped. There, he pursues first one lead to his son, then another, encountering lies at every turn. Meanwhile, he finds that MI6 is attempting to frame him as a scapegoat for missions that went wrong during and after World War II.

Yesterday’s Spy by Tom Bradby (2022) 384 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Iranian crowd supporting Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and Mullah Kashani in the face of the Iranian coup to install Shah Reza Pahlevi as supreme leader.
In the confused rioting that led to the CIA-led coup which overthrew Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the leading Iranian cleric, Mullah Kashani, backed the government. The crowd pictured here is protesting foreign efforts to oust Mosaddegh. Image: AP News

A spy’s life unravels amid the 1953 Iranian coup

Yesterday’s Spy opens in Germany in 1933, where young Harry has been studying mathematics on a term away from Cambridge. We follow him through his recruitment by MI6, his wartime assignments behind enemy lines, and his postwar work sending anti-Communist agents to infiltrate Yugoslavia and Albania. But those missions go badly wrong from the start. Harry falls under suspicion for their failure. Nearly a decade later, he is still under a cloud as a result. But his boss, and Winston Churchill (now Prime Minister again), both support him absolutely. Yet there appear to be others in SIS who do not. Because one of his colleagues in on his tail in Tehran.

The action unfolds on several tracks amid the tumult of Tehran in the run-up to the coup.

  • Harry’s pursuit of leads to his son along with the young man’s Iranian girlfriend.
  • Evading the SIS team trying to entrap him.
  • The emerging story of the forces behind the coup, including both British and Americans as well as senior figures in the Iranian police and army.
  • Soviet agents inserting themselves into the action, causing havoc to reign.
  • And the increasingly violent action on the streets.

It’s all very confusing . . . until it isn’t. And you’re unlikely to expect how Bradby resolves it all.

The historical background

The 1953 Iranian coup was one of the seminal events of the 20th century. Its importance is under-appreciated in the US. And accounts of that time tend to focus on the CIA. Even MI6, whose collaboration with the Americans was indispensable, is often overlooked. So is the Soviet involvement.

Today, with our eyes clouded by decades of history of the Islamic Republic, we may find it difficult to imagine the dynamics of Iranian society in the 1940s and 50s. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. “Without the discovery of an inexhaustible supply of oil in Iran, the British Empire would never have won two world wars.” But the British effectively stole that oil, leaving the large and growing Iranian public hungry and desperate. And the resulting rise of a populist regime under Mohammad Mosaddegh was only one of the threats to the West. The Soviet Union was actively seeking to seize power in Tehran as well. For once, the Eisenhower Administration’s crusade against Communism around the world may have acted against a genuine threat there . . . or at least one that could be more easily rationalized than all the others that followed in Guatemala, the Congo, and Chile.

About the author

Photo of Tom Bradby, author of this spy novel about the Iranian coup in 1953
Tom Bradby. Image: ITV

Tom Bradby is a journalist for Britain’s ITV, where he has worked since 1990. Yesterday’s Spy is his tenth novel. He was born in Malta in 1967 and educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied history. Bradby lives in Hampshire with his wife and their three children.

For more reading

I’ve also reviewed the author’s Secret Service (Kate Henderson #1) (Is Britain about to elect a Russian spy as its new Prime Minister?).

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