Constitutional Revolution And Its Aftermath (1906-20)

by Arash Monzavi-Kia

The Iranian

Dec 26 2008

The Iranian constitutional revolution was lead by a few intellectuals
who were inspired by the Western ideals of liberty and equality. The
English had one in the seventeenth century, which ultimately turned
their kings into figureheads and the country as lead by an elected
parliament. Both the French and the Americans went even further
in the eighteenth century, abolishing the royalty and instituting
Roman-inspired republics. There were two triggers to the constitutional
uprising in Persia; firstly, the exorbitantly higher costs of consumer
goods, due to the increased tariffs and levies. Secondly, shockwaves
of the Russian revolution of 1905 at the news of Japan’s unbelievable
victory over the Tsar’s navy.

After a year of struggles, in 1906, Mozafar-al-din Shah agreed to
the establishment of a parliament, where people’s representatives
could assemble and pass laws for a democratic Persia. The first act
of Majles was a European style constitution that was approved by the
compromising Shah, days before his passing. However, the new king
(Mohammad-Ali) was strongly opposed to any liberal restrictions
over his absolute power, and conspired to use the religious Shia
sentiments against the new parliament. Shah’s strongest ally was a
lead cleric (Sheik Fazlollah Norrie) who despised the free-thinking
constitutionalists. Clergies like Norrie believed that the laypeople
of Persia were not even capable of properly washing their hands without
specific instructions from a Marjah mullah, let alone passing laws!

In the summer of 1908, Shah’s Cossack brigade invaded the parliament,
jailed all the deputies and murdered the liberal leaders. Similar
attacks decimated the ranks of libertarians all over the country,
except for Tabriz where a small-scale armed resistance grew into a
full fledged uprising. The Tabriz uprising was aided by the armed
revolutionaries from the neighbouring Russian territories (Baku and
Armenia), and ignited similar rebellions in Rasht and Isfahan. The
ensuing civil war ended when in the spring of 1909, the revolutionary
forces captured Tehran, sent the murderous Shah to exile and unleashed
revenge on the reactionaries like Norrie.

However, the victorious constitutionalists inherited a bankrupt
country, which was not only one of the poorest in the world, but also
highly indebted to Russia and Britain. All through the nineteenth
century, those two colonial superpowers were engaged in a fierce
competition (the Great Game) over dominance in Asia. The Great Game
had bleed Persia but allowed the feeble Qajars to barely survive,
as each side vied for their allegiance. However, at the beginning
of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Russian animosity was replaced
by a common fear of the newly rising powers of Europe (Germany) and
Asia (Japan). In 1907, England and Russia had concluded a friendship
pact, which also unceremoniously divided Persia into two separate
spheres of influence. Russia was granted a de-facto control over all
economical activities in the North, and Britain in the South. The
newborn constitutional government in Tehran was helpless against that
arrangement, because most of the country’s riches were already lost
through concessions.

The new government’s bankruptcy also created animosity and fierce
fighting among the once allied constitutionalists. The leftists
(Democrats) who were inspired by the Russian socialists, wanted
to radicalize the movement and confiscate land and riches from the
princes, landlords and mullahs. The moderates were aiming at achieving
modernization and improvement but, with no money in the coffers,
could not affect any positive outcome.

The superpowers’ dominance in Iran was followed by outright occupation
during the First World War. In effect, Persia became a protectorate
of Russia and England, from 1912 to 1921. The level of misery and
hardship during that decade is mindboggling and appalling. It is
estimated that 20% of the total population (10 million) perished
in civil wars (among Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Bakhtiari, Ghashghai,
pro-Germans, pro-British, Arabs, Baluchi, etc.); fighting between the
rival Ottomans and Russians, who used Northern Iran as their battle
ground and source of supplies; and widespread famines and plagues
that wiped-out entire towns and villages.

WWI killed tens of millions of people in Europe, and caused the
collapse of the Russian and German empires. Russia soon turned into a
communist country and Germany adopted Nazism. Britain emerged victor
from the war, but so wounded and weak that London could not afford to
maintain the Persian occupation all by herself. Iran was descending
into chaos! The great rivalry between the two superpowers also
restarted; with the Russian communists (Reds) becoming openly hostile
to Britain and their counter-revolutionary allies (Whites). In 1921,
the final collapse of the Whites culminated in a new power balance
in the Persian arena.

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