The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Persia

The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Persia

What were the backgrounds of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 Persia, which caused the creation of a constitution and forced the gathering of a National Assembly?

Perhaps not many have heard about the Constitutional Revolution in Persia. If some people have knowledge on Iranian history, they would probably emphasize the role of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. However, without the Constitutional Revolution, the dethroning of the Shah in 1979 cannot be explained properly. The creation of the constitution and the establishment of the majles marked the first time that nationalists were recognized as considerable forces in Persian politics. During the 20th century, this nationalism became stronger and increased its support in the middle class. This feeling of nationalism would erupt again in 1979, and together with the clergy, it would invoke the Islamic Revolution. Thus the results of the Constitutional Revolution in Persia has effects which can be seen even today. Moreover, the struggle for constitutionalism in Persia clearly shows how nationalistic movements in non-European countries tried to cope with Imperialist influences. Persia is a typical example of a country which did not experience colonization completely, but where European countries did have major influence. These two reasons make researching this topic quite justifiable.

What were the causes of the decline of 19th century Persia and in which way were the Qajar Shahs responsible for this?
From the start of the 19th century, the Qajar Shahs ruled the country which is now known as Iran, but what early Europeans would call Persia. In these years, the modernization process of the Europeans was not replicated in Persia. Instead, the Qajar Shahs entered upon major conflict with their neighbors. Facing the ever expanding Russians in the north, the Ottomans in the west and the British in the southeast, Persia had lots of rivals. Each of these countries had specific interests in Persia. The British wanted to create a buffer-zone against the Russian threat and thus annexed Afghanistan and remained influential in the south. The Russians claimed the north. The Ottomans disputed the western regions. Their policy was aimed at undermining nationalist Kurdish sentiments. In order to accomplish this, the Ottomans felt they needed the western parts of Persia where Kurds live in large numbers.

The Qajar Shahs had a tremendously hard time keeping up with the hostilities of these three nations. Especially later Shahs were infamous for wasting money on expensive trips to Europe and retained an abundant life-style.

Although this view of Qajar Shahs is fashionable, some marginal comments can be made nonetheless. Indeed, in the eyes of a lot of Persians, the Qajar Shahs did posses other merits: they were devout, they were keen on having order in society and they opposed further foreign intervention in the country. Moreover, the Qajars intended quite a lot of reforms. They were motivated on grounds of strengthening the army, stimulating economic development and collecting more taxes. These would-be reforms were unfortunately introduced with no great conviction and were greeted without enthusiasm by conservative forces in society.

The economy had a lot of traditional mercantile characteristics. Persia was overwhelmingly an agricultural society. Only one-fifth of the nation lived in major cities, of which the Persians had two: Teheran and Tabriz, both in the north. Infrastructure was virtually absent, with only a few railroads connecting the north with the south. Most of the economic activity consisted of local trade. Production was mainly grain for local consumption. On a small scale sugar, tea and textiles were imported. Off course, already then the reputation of Persian carpets was unrivalled. Every part of the Persian carpet is traditionally hand made from natural ingredients over the course of many months. Persian carpet weavers had developed great skill in production and refinement.
After all, they were in the business of producing carpets since ancient times. Thus, the world was familiar with the beauty of Persian rugs. The trade of Persian carpets resulted in the formation of a tiny merchant class in Teheran and Tabriz. But the overall impression is undisputed: Persia was still a pre-industrial nation.

The decline in Persia in the 19th century was mostly political of nature. Economically, not much changed. The Industrial development in Europe created a giant lead for Europeans, which allowed them to generate interests in Persia. Land, which had always belonged to successive Persian Empires, was ceded to Britain (Afghanistan in 1857) and Russia (Azerbaijan in 1828 and Turkmenistan in 1898). Moreover, Britain remained influential in the South, while Russia focused more on Teheran and Tabriz. Although the nation was not colonized, the Persian nation seemed to be in the grip of imperialist forces. The role of the Qajar Shahs in these events is debatable. Up to the start of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, the Shahs were constantly acquiring loans from these foreign powers. However, these loans were not properly distributed and if they were, the investments had little success. Partly, this lack of success was because of foreign intervention. Partly, it was because of incompetence of the Shahs and internal opposition to changes. When the Constitutional Revolution started at 1906, is was clear that the status quo could not be maintained anymore.

Why did the Russians and the British rival for influence in Persia and how were these rivalries settled in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907?
Tsarist Russia had already adopted an expansion policy towards Siberia and the Caucasus in the 17th century. At the peak of Russian territorial expansion, they came to be the rulers of Islamic ethnicities in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. The expansion toward Persia became a reality. In three successive wars, bits and pieces of former Persian land were annexed to Imperial Russia. Under the Qajar Fath Ali Shah, a weakened and bankrupted royal court, was forced to sign notorious treaties after efforts to secure Persia's northern front failed miserably. Present day boundaries of northern Iran were set, after Persia lost its foothold in Central Asia (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) to the Russians. The present-day nation of Tajikistan clearly shows this Persian loss. Even now, the Tajik language shows a striking parallel with the language spoken in Iran and Afghanistan. The same holds true for the Uzbek and Turkmen cities Bukhara, Merv and Samarkand. The European Imperial mindset drove these Persian provinces to the arms of Russian tsars.

But Russia did not only gather former Iranian territory, it also exercised enormous military influence on the Persian army. By 1900, the central government of the Shah in Teheran did not have a respectable quantity of well-trained soldiers under his supervision. The Persian army was almost a joke. The only force to be reckoned with was an elite imperial guard modeled after Russian regiments, the Cossacks. Russian style uniforms were worn, in contrast to indigenous army clothes of Persian soldiers. Moreover, Russian officers were recruited to lead these 1500 soldiers.

Understanding Russia’s policies towards Persia might be a troublesome task. In fact, a clear Russian policy did not exist at all. Various political forces in Russia regarded Persia very differently. Some primarily wanted to conduct economic exploitation, others saw Persia only as an area of strategic importance in The Great Game. Also, the belief was present that Persia was an imminent dangerous melting pot for discontented Muslims in Russian territories of Central Asia. Particularly for this last view, Russia’s policy was aimed at undermining the efforts of Persian nationalists in creating a strong and economically developing nation.

The British had established a crown colony in India. By aiding Afghani revolutionaries in the 19th century, they aimed at securing and stabilizing India. A consequence of these actions was the fact that former Persian lands around the city of Herat were separated from the Persian empire. However, the British approach to Persia differed greatly from the Russians. In order to block any threats to British India, the British were in favor of a strong and independent Persia. Yet the British were not willing to contribute to this cause actively. After all, this would upset the Russians and perhaps would even lead to trouble on the European continent.

In the 19th century, both Russia and Britain were involved in the Great Game. This term refers to the rivalry and the strategic conflict between Imperialist Russia and the British. Both had quite different interest in the Asian continent. Britain followed a policy of security for its own colonies and therefore wanted to reduce Russian influence. Russia aimed at completely dominating the Siberian and the Caucasian lands. Persia remained an unsettled case for these two imperialist forces. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 settled this dispute. Both nations agreed to have spheres of influence in Persia; the British in the south and the Russians in the north with a neutral area in-between. Persian nationalists saw this agreement as an infraction of their sovereignty.

What were the main political forces active in the Constitutional Revolution and in what way did they contribute to the Revolution?
The Persian political arena before 1906 consisted out of three groups with very different interest. On the one hand, the Qajar royal family, their bureaucrats and conservative supporters were in power. This force opposed any radical change of the internal power structure and wanted to increase and protect its wealth. The Qajars were not completely against reforms of the state or the economy. Just like Conservatives in Europe they were willing to introduce slow reforms in order for the country to flourish. After all, if the country flourished economically, they would be the first ones who would benefit from it. However, they disliked the idea of a constitutional monarchy and they certainly did not want to share their power with a democratic parliament.
The main religion in Persia is Twelver Shiism. Shiites believe fiercely in the return of the long lost 12th Imam Mahdi. The Imam went into seclusion in the 9th century and it is said that he will return at the end of time to punish the guilty and to reward the faithful. However, amongst these Shiites, disagreements were always present who would guide the Islamic community in the process. Most people at the beginning of the 20th century considered the mullahs to be those leaders. A smaller number of people, mostly in the higher classes in society (first bourgeois in Persia) opposed this assumption. They were reluctant against the idea that the Islamic community should be lead by self-appointed clergymen. However, the vast majority of the people living in the countryside supported the mullah leadership. These mullahs organized themselves in the ulema, the Islamic authority. In Persia, the ulema had a lot influence. Mosques, built throughout the nation, were used as local power bases. The ulema had the support of a lot of followers and was able to amass a considerable amount of people in little time. Basically, these clerics saw the growth of western heathen elements in society and they were determined to turn the tide of this ‘moral decline’.

None of the groups really showed any interest in nationalistic ideas. Therefore, nationalism was mostly generated by a third group, radical intellectuals and merchants. European cultural influence resulted in the arrival of nationalistic views in Persia. The merchants were the fore-runners of liberal sentiments in society. They had accumulated wealth by trade and wanted to expand their wealth by stimulating the economy. For example, infrastructure was not developed in Persia. Without infrastructure, economic trade cannot flourish to the maximum. The merchants were in favor of economic reforms, like building railroads.
Radical intellectuals had previously studied in Europe and had experienced the ideals of the French Revolution. They were fierce supporters of the Enlightenment and wanted to create a more democratic government. Over the course of the 19th century, they were heavily irritated by seeing projects of modernization fail miserably. It seemed clear to many Persians that traditional institutions would not protect Persia against European pressure. Thus, the radicals supported the idea of a constitutional democracy. They wanted to protect themselves from the Europeans by means of a constitution.

The initiation of the Revolution was followed after a century of growing resentment of Qajar rulers. It seemed apparent that the Qajars were not able to direct Persia to modernity and thus the call for democratization spread also to the ulema. According to many historians specialized in Middle-Eastern history (Yapp), the nationalists and the ulema did not have much difference in opinion. Initially, both groups wanted to reduce the power of the sovereign. The ulema also wanted to criminalize the drinking of alcohol, which in their view was a result of ‘immoral European influence’. Nationalists and the clergy had different views on how society should be organized after the installment of a constitution, but since that phase was not achieved, both groups decided to join forces.

Other historians express the firm conviction that already then the ulema had the deep rooted desire to install a Islamic theocracy. This view on the establishment of political power was not shared by nationalists. Therefore, the clergy and the nationalists were united in decreasing the power of the Shah, but they had opposing goals in the long run.

Anyway, in 1896 the Qajar Shah Naser Al-Din who opposed any nationalist reform, was assassinated by a fanatic Muslim sect. His son, Muzaffar Al-Din Shah, was incapable of appeasing the political forces. According to Malcolm Yapp, a historian specialized in Middle Eastern history this Shah “was devoted to religion and cats but ignorant of government and diplomacy.” More loans were obtained from the Russians, but Muzaffar Al-Din spent a considerable amount of it on three trips to Europe. Hostility against this action of the Shah and to the foreign loans gathered and in 1906 it burst in the shape of a Revolution.

The direct cause of the start of the Constitutional Revolution came from the Japanese victory over the Russians in Manchuria. Persian nationalists saw the Japanese victory as a sign that constitutionalism made a country powerful. Indeed, the Japanese were the only people in Asia with a constitution. They were industrially developed and a military force to be reckoned with. Asians all over the region were amazed that the Japanese succeeded in defeating a European nation. Persian nationalists explained these events with the fact that Russia was the sole European nation without a constitution. Inspired by the Japanese victory, they demanded the creation of a parliament and a constitution, to eventually kick the Russians out of their country. However, the strongest urge to revolt was the hostility towards certain groups that favored privileges, such as the bureaucrats and the Qajars.

The Shah was forced to give in to the full demands of the opposition. The majles was formally opened and went on to create a constitution. On the 30th of December this constitution, modeled after the Belgian one, was signed by the Shah. A few days later he died. The next Shah would not be as sympathetic to the nationalist cause. Mohammad Ali Shah came into conflict with the majles and started moving against the institution with which he had to share his power. All of the nationalists victories were of no avail; eventually through Russian intervention and tribal chieftains forcing a coup, the majles lost all legislative power.

What were the direct and indirect outcomes of the constitutional revolution and how do these outcomes influence present-day Iranian politics?
The constitutional revolution was a sign that the modernization process had also begun in Persia. The previous feudalistic and traditional society was rejected and a new modern order was established. Although the majles was only in power for short interludes, it managed to create new laws on education, taxation and customs. Furthermore, railroads were in the process of being built. Ambitious reforms were introduced by later Shahs. It seemed that after the Constitutional Revolution the genie was out of the bottle, without the possibility of tucking it in again.

In the end, the democratization of Persia was not fully achieved. The continuing political chaos would bring the leader of the Cossack troops, Reza Khan, to power and eventually he would declare himself Shah. This would make the majles a totally powerless institution. The Shah only allowed one political party to participate in elections. The constitutional restrictions on the power of the Shah were practically absent. Reza Shah became an a totalitarian dictator. Even in the current Iranian political system, the parliament is nothing more than an applauding machine. Candidate MP’s who have democratic characteristics, cannot participate in any elections. The ones that get through the selection, are full supporters of the mullahs.

In the long term, results of the constitutional revolution are more positive. For the first time in the Middle East a nationalistic Revolution had partially succeeded. A constitution had been written and put into effect. Later nationalistic movements would see the Constitutional Revolution in Persia as an example. Although the majles did not maintain its predominance in Persian policies, it would remain a respectable institute, even after Reza Shah took over control. Moreover, the creation of a parliament accelerated the speed of revolutions in the future of Persia. Though the creation of the parliament, Persia would experience two more Revolutions in the future. The third revolution, known to us as the Islamic Revolution of 1979, would eventually succeed. Nationalist leaders, active in the majles, would participate in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Through their actions in the majles, they would gain fame and because of that fame, they were able to amass supporters.

Hossein Amirsadeghi. Twentieth Century Iran. Chapter 1: 1900-1921 The last years of the Qajar Dynasty by Malcolm E. Yapp. London 1977. pages 1-22.
Nader Sohrabi. “Historicizing Revolutions: Constitutional Revolutions in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Russia, 1905-1908.” American journal of sociology. Volume: 100. Issue: 6. pages 1383-1447.
Mohammad Reza Afshari. “The Pishivaran and Merchants in Precapitalist Iranian Society: An Essay on the Background and Causes of the Constitutional Revolution.” International journal of Middle East studies. Volume: 15. Issue: 2. pages 133-155.
Mangol Bayat. Review of “Iran's First Revolution: Shiism and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909.” International journal of Middle East studies. Volume: 29. Issue: 1. pages 148-150.
Janet Afary. Review of “The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy and the Origins of Feminism.” British journal of middle eastern studies. Volume: 24. Issue: 2. pages 277-279.