A forgotten anniversary: Iran’s first revolution and constitution

Too often the history of Iran is reduced to a string of despotisms interrupted by moments of fanatical violence and foreign intervention.  

Amir-Hussein Firouz Radjy
8 March 2013

With the New Year came and passed the forgotten anniversary of a seminal event in Iranian and Asian history: the anniversary of Iran’s first revolution and Asia’s oldest parliament, whose centenary came and passed some years ago without a murmur.  Remembering that event today would do much to elucidate Iran’s present situation, as well as the vexed relations of Iranians with both their government and the outside world.

The zero hour was late on the night of December 30, 1906, when the dying emperor of Iran, Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, signed into law the country’s first constitution, launching a brave experiment in liberal and parliamentary government.  Iran, which for the past century had been a plaything in the contest between the British and Russian empires known as the Great Game, shone as a beacon of hope for an Asia drowning in the high-tide of European imperialism.

The struggle for democracy in Iran – or more accurately, for responsible, progressive and independent leadership – is over one hundred years old and did not begin with the Green Movement in 2009, nor with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or the 1950s nationalist movement under Musaddiq.  These historical events marked not the birth, but the continuation of the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy that had begun in 1906.

Too often the history of Iran is reduced to a string of despotisms interrupted by moments of fanatical violence and foreign intervention.  Part of the problem is that Americans ask the wrong questions of the region (why do they hate us? why is there so much violence there?) that privilege explanations of America’s ‘intelligence failures’, but do little to forward their understanding of the local historical forces at work.  This distorted history serves Iranians who like to write off their own country’s failings as the nefarious work of foreigners.  Both sides seem to agree that if history is not the work of despots and terrorists, it is the doing of the CIA or the British. 

In December 1906, the feeling in Iran was akin to that of today’s Arab Spring: a thrilling moment when society stirred and rose in revolt against a corrupt system.  In the tumult of this countrywide movement, there emerged the demand for a constitution granting an elected and national (not Islamic, as some wanted) parliament.

The signed document called for a liberal government modeled on the constitutional monarchies of Belgium and Great Britain.  It was a dramatic departure from millennia of absolute monarchy.  If only in principle, Iranians, so long the subjects of their unaccountable rulers, became citizens who held their rulers to account.

The Constitutional Revolution, as it was known, aspired to develop the country into a modern nation-state, and so protect Iran’s independence from the preying greed of the European empires.   Instead, the following two decades brought violent unrest, civil war, and foreign occupation, leading many Iranians to remember the revolution as a painful failure.

Far from failing, Iran’s first revolution left an important legacy: nationalism, the institutions of a modern state, and a tradition of popular democracy.  The Majles, the country’s elected assembly, is the longest-sitting parliament in Asia.  Iran’s rulers have often reduced the institution to a rubber stamp, but none has dared to rule without it.

The constitutional movement was overwhelmingly progressive and pluralistic (a living, if embattled, spirit among Tehran’s bourgeoisie today).  The revolutionaries of 1906, a broad camp that embraced both princes and peasants, were cosmopolitan and open-minded.  They welcomed the help of Georgians and others from the Russian Caucasus.  Public committees sprang up across the country, many of them dedicated to women’s rights and the cause of social democracy.  They left a legacy of grass-roots organization, and anticipated the political sophistication of Iranian men and women today.

The revolution rumbled on for a few more years, turning into a civil war that pitted the constitutionalists against the reactionaries, led by the powerful cleric Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, whose violent rantings against liberalism as un-Islamic led him to be hung as a traitor.  Today’s regime calls Nuri a martyr and a visionary who first described the mullahs as the legitimate rulers of the land.

Nuri’s camp insisted on religious oversight for the Majles in the form of a ‘clerical senate’.  He was concerned that the powers of laymen and secular laws should not overshadow those of the sharia (Islamic law) and the clergy.  The conflict over the nature of rights, and the legal status of religion, defined ideological debates within Iran for the rest of the century.  But the variety of positions described as Islamist (or religiously correct) indicate that Islam is not the problem, but obscurantist interpretations with a claim to tradition.

Other leading clerics propounded Islam as a doctrine of democracy and rationalism.  God, sharia, and popular sovereignty found an uneasy reconciliation in the Majles and, in the early 1920s, the clergy led the defense of the parliamentary order against the military strongman Reza Pahlavi.  Although he eventually expelled the Qajars and founded his own dynasty, Reza Shah retained the 1906 constitution, which was only abrogated decades later, along with the monarchy, by the revolutionary cleric Khomeini.

Both Iranians and foreign observers like to trace the origins of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution to the coup that toppled Musaddiq’s democratically-elected nationalist government in 1953.  The CIA’s role in that seminal event has been spun into a tale of American Cold War folly and strategic miscalculation, with the massive blowback of Islamist revolutions and terrorism across the region.  In reality, Musaddiq’s downfall was the result of a domestic political crisis, a failed attempt to make the constitutional order work again.  His policies alienated royalists and radicals alike, and left him with too few allies to defend himself.

Iran’s 1979 revolution was not so much a reaction against foreign and American influence, as the result of the class and cultural conflicts unleashed in 1906.  Khomeini described himself as the ideological grandchild of Nuri, and the Islamic Republic he founded drew its initial support from broad swathes of the lower and merchant classes, many of whom believed it would reconcile their social conservatism with the principles of accountable government.

Perversely, America can only serve its strategic interests in the region by overcoming its obsession with ‘strategic interests’: if it is to engage intelligently with regional actors, America must pay more attention to the long-term historical forces at work in Iran and its region.  Only then can America appreciate the power of resistance politics in a country like Iran that has often equated the struggle for rights with the struggle for independence from foreign domination.

The Constitutional Revolution was an act of the Iranian people accomplished against great odds, and at a time when neighbouring Russia, a much more advanced and powerful country, failed to accept a similar liberal order, driving that empire towards the violence and extremism of the Bolshevik revolution.

Today, the anniversary of the constitution’s signing is largely ignored both within and outside of Iran, but its legacy lingers.  Iranians would do well to commemorate it, and so remind themselves and others that they do not need lessons in democracy, but respect for a century-old struggle for justice that began in 1906.


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