Actors & Interests in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution

Actors & Interests in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution

Which Iranians supported the Constitution Revolution and which opposed it? How do you account for these divisions?

The Constitutional Revolution in Iran symbolizes a key event in a long series of conflicts between Iranian state and society. The initial period of political turmoil in 1905 and 1906 came to be known as the first attempt of a Middle Eastern people to modernize their state apparatus by means of the introduction of lawful government and as an attempt to assert national sovereignty. The Constitutional movement’s victories and failures set the precedent for future episodes of political turmoil in Iran and in the immediate region. The movement in Iran was itself heartened by the Japanese victory over Tsarist Russia in September 1905. This victory contributed to the widespread perception that an Asian nation could break the established power of the Russian Empire, that is, if it had the regulatory framework of law to condition a decent and orderly government.

The modernizing ambitions of the Constitutionalists fundamentally shaped Iranian society in the long run and established basic institutions that proved to be durable beyond the Islamic Revolution in 1978-1979. Yet, in the absence of solid state power in the short term, constitutionalism failed to crystallize in effective policies to tackle the backwardness of the Iranian state. By the end of the First World War, the Qajar court in Tehran headed a classic ‘failed’ state. Constitutionalist politicians in the majles, despite their optimistic ambitions and earlier cooperation, reverted into petty bickering, unable to maintain a tactical alliance. The rivalries between different political factions proved to be a stronger systemic pressure than the recognition of the need for political conciliation and coalition building. By the end of the First World War, Iran was torn by the devastation caused by rampaging foreign armies and had to cope with tribal magnates that controlled vast amounts of territory in the periphery. The failure of any unified state apparatus to offset the impending fragmentation put many former Constitutionalists in a state of pessimism. This in turn led to the arrival of Reza Khan to the political scene and the consolidation of his rule after the coup of 1921. In order to understand the failure of the Constitutional movement and its aftermath, an examination of important actors within the Constitutional movement is therefore very much justified.

The following essay will strive to account for the divisions within the camp of the Constitutionalists and examine the arguments of its adversaries. In doing so, this essay focuses on the initial period of political turmoil between the outbreak of demonstrations in the winter of 1905 and the establishment of the first majles. It will be shown here than an interpretative focus on these events will yield an accurate understanding of the motives of the main actors. To contrast the points made in this article, Ervand Abrahamian’s seminal article on the structural causes of the Constitutional Revolution will be taken as a starting point. First, the striking difference between the approaches of historians and social scientists to the topic of the Constitutional Revolution will be examined, thereby showing how different research designs lead to different conclusions about this period in Iranian history. Secondly, we will look at the importance of modern constitutional ideas and the importance of structural-economic grievances that influenced the actions of radical thinkers, traders and merchants, the clerical establishment and the urban and rural masses in Iran respectively. Thirdly, we will reflect on the Constitutional movement in greater detail and try to relate divisions and agreements within the camp to possible structural interests.

Constitutional Ideas
Conflicting interpretations of the Constitutional movement in Iran have long been a source of contestation between historians of this period and social scientists. The debate is part of a larger dispute between the realm of the humanities and the social sciences. Drawing on theories of social revolutions, researchers can attempt to explain the occurrence of major societal upheavals on the basis of the interrelationship between individual actor behaviour that includes the role of ideology, political beliefs and culture, and systemic factors that denote an underlying class consciousness. In other words, in the attempt to account for social revolutions, researchers may combine recurring structural causes with the actions of crucial social agents that have a certain ideological and cultural disposition. In the social sciences at large, this possible source of theoretical division is known as the agency-structure problem. An analysis about Iranians involved in the Constitutional Revolution should take a stand on the specifics of this relationship, as it is yet unclear why a wide array of Iranians came together for the tactical endeavour to oppose traditional despotic rule, many harbouring a different cultural vision on Iranian society.

In itself, the term constitutionalism hints at the importance of ideas. In this view, the Constitutional movement gained momentum, precisely because of a western ideational intrusion into the Iranian collective mind. Traditional Iranian historiography in particular recognizes the central importance of individuals in the Constitutional movement, all brought together because of shared reformist views on the state-society relationship in Qajar Iran. Indeed, the notion of despotic and arbitrary rule became continuously delegitimized by the failure of the Qajar administration to reform the country in the 19th century. Radical thinkers such as Malkum Khan and Seyyed Hassan Taqizadeh as well as clerics like Seyyed Abdollah Behbahani criticized the unjust exercise of executive power and were keen to develop new political institutions to suit the Iranian state. These ideas have a clear ideological origin in western Enlightenment thinking.

The constitutionalist ideas did not only sound appealing, they were also adopted because of bare necessity. Nasser al-Din Shah’s assassination in 1896 had ushered the country into a new round of chaos and allowed foreign encroachment of British and Russian interests to grow in almost exponential fashion. Many of those intellectual thinkers who came into contact with the West saw a way out of the challenge. An orderly society, governed by a responsible and lawful government could be within reach, if only the traditional cycle of unlawful rule and chaos could be broken. Law came to be seen as a magic word that could solve all of Iran’s problems. Mirza Malkum Khan’s influential news-sheet for example, was named ‘Yek Kalameh: Qanun’ or ‘One Word: Law!’ to champion new radical ideas to the Iranian masses in clear fashion.

The Constitutionalists wished a government that was responsible to the nation; a government that could be held accountable for the achievement of societal and economic progress. The traditional Qajar court in Tehran could not meet this demand, as it would concede its divine and eternal nature. In effect, the Constitutional movement sought to replace the most fundamental precept of the Qajar state, namely the fact that its existence was unconditional. It is for this reason that the enactment of constitutionalism in Iran would have two consequences. First, the arbitrary exercise of executive power would be restricted by new political institutions. The Constitutionalists first demanded the establishment of a court of law, a new ‘House of Justice’. The bast at the British legation however, allowed intellectuals to educate large swaths of the demonstrators in modern political theory and constitutionalist thought. The thousands of people gathered there were socialized to phrase their demands in modern terminology. The claims now became more explicit and forceful, as the demonstrators asked for a people’s parliament, a majles, and a Belgian-modelled constitution to advance much needed state reform. Secondly, Iranian governments would now be subjected to the scrutiny of professional politicians in the majles that would oversee a reform program of defensive modernization. At the time, many hoped that modernization and reform would enhance the state’s capabilities to offset British and Russian external pressures. The implementation of these reforms was to usher Iran into a new period of great power revivalism.

Structural Forces and Class Consciousness
The importance of constitutionalist ideas, however, does not provide an immediate rationale for the outbreak of demonstrations in the winter of 1905. More recent historiography on the Constitutional Revolution picks up this argument and emphasises the emergence of a class consensus between Iranians in the middle class with common grievances against the government. Ervand Abahamian in particular draws on Marxist social theory to reflect on structural grievances of propertied Iranians within the middle class who had a score to settle with a hostile Qajar establishment. In this view, structural forces against the despotic state allowed dispersed individuals with shared structural-economic incentives to come together and oppose the arbitrary intrusion of the state in their economic activities. According to Abrahamian, these structural conditions laid the framework for the outbreak of protests in the Muharram month of 1905, as an economic crisis, higher levies of custom duties, taxation and spiralling inflation propelled Iranian traders, merchants, clerics and larger urban masses into the streets.

Abrahamian further argues that the emergence of the propertied middle class was due to the economic penetration of Iran. From the late 19th century, successive Iranian governments were forced to open up their countries for British and Russian interests, making the Iranians feel the economic encroachment of foreigners ever more painfully. Merchants and traders in particular now had to compete with foreign business. Abrahamian’s analysis therefore hints towards the creation of a coalition of bazaar merchants, traders and clerics; an alliance of the Bazaar and the Mosque with these roots lying in the earlier Tobacco protests of the late 19th century. The alliance cut across geographical regions and allowed for a modern middle class to become politically vocal. In the words of Homa Katouzian, this analysis privileges an economic rational above an analysis based on the effect of ideology, and basically phrases the Constitutional Revolution to be a ‘bourgeois revolution’.

Abrahamian’s rich analysis, however, suffers from one fundamental error. In order to fit the empirical happenings of the early stages of the Constitutional movement into Marxist social theory, he assumes that the effect of constitutional ideas can only be attributed to Iranian radical revolutionaries and not to Constitutionalists in the middle class. According to Abrahamian, the western-influenced radicals had no structural incentive to demand constitutional reform, but were principally motivated because of revolutionary ideology and the exposure to constitutional ideas. For the propertied middle class, Abrahamian assumes constitutional ideas to be less important. Although the propertied middle class moved in concert with radical intellectuals to demand restrictions on arbitrary power, their demand for constitutional rule worked as a mere function of more important sub-structural grievances against the Qajar state. Hence, Abrahamian goes on to conclude that ideology in itself was not an important factor behind the Constitutional Revolution as the propertied middle class dominated the majles after its establishment.

The simplification into generalities follows from Abrahamian’s attempt to theorize the causes of the Constitutional Revolution. It represents a crucial design flaw in his argumentation. Rather than looking at the arguments of specific Iranian individuals in the available source material, Abrahamian is forced to group them together, neglecting to examine influences that cut across typified social classes. It is important to note here that Iranian merchants and traders and the Shi’a clergy may indeed have developed a structural grievance against the Qajar establishment. The economic encirclement of these groups resulted into immediate financial problems and estranged them from Qajar traditionalism, thereby aggravating their opposition towards the despotic state. Nonetheless, the point remains that structural and ideational motives share a much closer bond than Abrahamian has discerned.

The Constitutionalist Camp
To understand the motives of the chief leaders in the Constitutional movement, generalizing theories are of little use. Rather, an interpretative focus on the similarities in political outlook between crucial individuals is in order. Accordingly, studies by Vanessa Martin, Reza Afshari and even Abrahamian himself, have attempted to investigate the role of rural and urban masses in the Revolution and the role of Bazaar. The evidence here stresses that traditional allegiances and modernist ideas vied for influence, but that Constitutionalism proved victorious against Qajar traditionalism.

A major structural divide between secular nationalist thinking and Shi’a religious interest was bridged and allowed radical intellectuals to appreciate their allies in the clerical establishment. Many sources point out that several devout Shi’a figures supported the ideals of the Constitutional movement and advocated the establishment of novel political institutions. Seyyed Jamal al-Din Esfahani combined his devout religious appeal with the political cause of constitutionalism. He saw the importance of reforming Iranian state finances and phrased this as a ‘jihadist’ endeavour. Writers such as Ali Akbar Dekhoda and Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi literally coined political concepts from the West in Persian, making absolutism, democracy and constitutionalism notions that were discursively adopted by a wide array of people. For some the modernizing ideals drew on Voltaire, Montesquieu, Kant and the Enlightenment. For others, religion and constitutional ideas were fusible and produced revolutionary mix of agitation against the state. The bast at the British legation in 1906 showed how clerical preachers and radicals joined hands to socialize the masses in Constitutionalist terminologies. It was here that the original idea of a mere ‘House of Justice’ gave way to the establishment of a constitution and a majles that would represent the nation’s interests.

Evidently, the Qajar court in Tehran fundamentally opposed any constitutional reform and even retained a traditional anxiety towards state modernization as early as the days of Amir Kabir. The Azerbaijan entourage of Muzaffar al-Din Shah however, proved more susceptible to internal and external pressures. At the beginning of the 20th century, chief ministers such as the great Atabak, Amin al-Dawleh, were deeply concerned with the emergence of modern radical notions of lawful government and constitutionalism and had grown wary of the failed attempts of successive governments to raise taxes, offset foreign penetration and centralize the Qajar state. The traditionalist argument however was on the retreat and no state repression could have averted the change in popular attitude. Although some landed magnates in rural Iran were quite happy with the status quo and supported the traditionalist vision of Qajar society, their support base in the rural countryside was rapidly declining. Continued inaction, corrupt Qajar officials and failed policies further contributed to this de-legitimization. Muzaffar al-Din Shah’s sacking of both Atabak and his conservative successor, Ein al-Dawleh, signalled the growing momentum of the Constitutionalists.

The role of the clerical Shi’a establishment was instrumental for the Constitutional movement at large, but it always retained a dual allegiance to traditionalism and revolutionary ideology embedded in Shi’a memory. The divide also shaped the personal rivalry of two leading mujtahids in Tehran. Seyyed Abdollah Behbahani and Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri represented the two flexible ends of a very broad religious spectrum. Although both joined the thrust of the movement in 1905 and 1906, Nuri’s hesitations with regards to constitutionalism came to the forefront in the coup attempt of Mohammad Ali Shah, only after the majles evidenced growing procrastination. Nuri feared that radical factions within the Constitutionalist camp would undermine traditional values and that the focus of constitutionalism would shift from economic reforms to secular and cultural reforms. It seems that Nuri also began to believe in the secretive view that the entire Constitutionalist ordeal was orchestrated by prominent Babi heretics. Nuri’s importance in the Constitutional movement is debatable, however, as most mujtahids in the Shi’a world chose the side of Behbahani and his wingman Tabatabai.

Although the alliance between Shi’a ideology and western Enlightenment thinking is highly contradictory in present times, the tactical fusion of motives in the events leading up to the establishment of the first majles proved crucial for the success of the Constitutionalist movement. Shi’a revolutionary ideology helped to imbed radical political ideas in the broader mindset of the Iranian masses. After all, it was broadly shared that estebdad, illegitimate despotic power, was to be opposed, by means of the creation of some set of rules which would help to make the nation prosper again. The origin and nature of these laws lay in Enlightenment political thought, but for some Shi’as the sharia in itself was a source of inspiration for mashruteh.

In order to understand divides and agreements within the Constitutionalist movement, it is imperative to use an interpretative framework that acknowledges the cross-sectional importance of constitutional ideas and pays lip service to the joint activities of radical intellectuals and revolutionary clerics. Structural-economic grievances remain important causes for the outbreak of demonstrations in 1905. The economic malaise that ensued in Iran after the defeat of Tsarist Russia as well as the pressure of custom duties and taxation on merchants and traders signal the emergence of a conscious middle class. This should not negate the fact that the Iranian middle class was just as motivated by constitutionalism. Leading ulema worked on the basis of political goals similar to those of Iranian radicals and intellectuals and expressed support for the formation of novel political institutions. The success of the bast at the British legation and the specific demands of the mujtahids against the conservative court in Tehran are examples of this alliance.

The study of some of the crucial leaders in the Iranian Constitutional shows that the adherence to ideology was adapted to suit Iranians. Constitutionalism may have been borrowed from the West, but it was empathetic to revolutionary Shi’a concepts, thereby explaining why different players in the movement shared similar aspirations. Constitutional ideas and concepts cut across broad spectres of Iranian society and propelled important Iranians to action. Internal cohesion within the Constitutionalists camp did not maintain for long after the establishment of the majles. Only after the fulfilment of basic constitutionalist ideas by the capitulation of Muzaffar al-Din Shah, divisions that had previously not been so important in the Constitutionalist camp, came to the forefront and exerted a form of paralysis on the workings of the majles. In the early days of the movement however, differences were overshadowed by mutual imperatives. The establishment of a system based on the rule of law, the restriction of the arbitrary power of the state and the desire for revivalism and national assertion bound the Constitutionalists together.

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