After U.S. officials misread a telegram, Queen Elizabeth accidentally played a part in the fall of the Iranian government in 1953

By Phil Boucher
June 12, 2020 03:43 PM
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Queen Elizabeth is not known for being a James Bond-style spy. According to new documentary The Queen and The Coup, however, the British monarch played a key role in one of the most important MI6/CIA covert operations of all time.

There's just one small catch: the royal great-grandmother didn't actually know it.

"Everyone sees MI6 and the CIA as these super-effective, very slick covert actors but there's a bit of comedy and a bit of farce and misrepresentation there too," historian Rory Cormac tells PEOPLE about the secret MI6/CIA plot to overthrow Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq in August 1953.

The Queen's unwitting piece of espionage stems from a badly-phrased secret telegram discovered by Cormac and fellow historian Richard Aldrich in the U.S. national archives.

Sent by British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden while traveling aboard cruise ship the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the telegram urged the U.S. to convince the Shah of Iran to remain in Tehran while the U.S. and U.K. did everything they could to create a revolution.

When the message was passed onto the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, Loy Henderson, it read, "Foreign Office this afternoon informed us of receipt message from Eden from Queen Elizabeth expressing concern at latest developments re Shah and strong hope we can find some means of dissuading him from leaving country."

RMS Queen Elizabeth
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Leaping on the words "Queen Elizabeth," the U.S. diplomat told the Shah that he "had just received message indicating that [a] very important personage for whom Shah had most friendly feelings had also expressed sincere hope that Shah could be dissuaded from leaving country."

The message had the desired effect. The Shah had initially intended to quit and run, but after receiving the message, he changed his mind and decided to stay put instead.

"It helped them," adds Cormac. "It was a happy accident."

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle
Steve Parsons/PA

But there was a problem. The unearthed files reveal that the U.S. spooks quickly realized the message was not from the monarch – who recently snuck in a romantic nod to Prince Philip in his 99th birthday portrait –  but the cruise ship the Queen Elizabeth.

Faced with the prospect of having to confess to both the Shah and the Queen, the American State Department opted for a much simpler solution — and kept its mouth shut.

"It seems to have worked. The Shah is staying put. So let's just keep it quiet. Let's not tell the British," says Cormac about the CIA's thought process.

He adds, "It all just creates this impression of miscommunication and farce, rather than highly professional covert operators."

Queen Elizabeth and Daniel Craig
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The Eden files have remained buried ever since — and probably would have remained that way if it wasn't for the dedicated historical sleuthing of Cormac and Aldrich.

"We found this reference to the Queen," adds Cormac. "It was related to the Shah in very secretive terms, with lots of euphemisms because the US ambassador was terrified of people tapping the phones and finding out that the Queen was involved."

"We just thought it was incredibly exciting and odd. But we then found the fact that the American's had messed up and misread the cable."

"It was a very confusing cable," he admits. "I have to confess that when I first read it I thought the exact same thing. I read it as the Queen personally meddling in a foreign country — I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is unconstitutional! This is big!' "

Queen Elizabeth tours the London headquarters of MI5
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Not content with revealing Queen Elizabeth's unwitting steps into the cloak and dagger world of James Bond, the pair of historians are now putting together a broader book about the relationship between the British secret services — who the Queen visited in February — and the monarchy.

Given the U.K.'s strict secrecy laws, however, it's going to take a lot more dedication — and yet more trawling of the U.S. archives.

"We all think of the British secret services as the most secretive of all the British institutions, but that's not actually true," says Cormac. "The Royal Family are the most secret British institution by a long way."

"The more you find out about this stuff the more you realize there's more to the role than waving and cutting ribbons," he adds. "There's a lot going on."

The Queen and the Coup airs in the UK at 9 p.m. on Sunday on Channel 4.