The Constitutional Revolution of 1906: How the British and Russians Torpedoed the Iran that Might Have Been

The Triumph of Tehran depicting the entrance of pro-constitutionalists into the Iranian capital in July 1909 Source: Google Images

“On July 31, 1909 an event occurred in Iran that shocked the Muslim world and reverberated for decades afterward. Shaikh Fazlullah Nuri, the highest-ranking cleric of Tehran was publicly executed by a revolutionary tribunal. Two weeks earlier revolutionary forces had reconquered Tehran, deposed Muhammed ‘Ali Shah and reestablished democratic and constitutional government. In 1907, after months of confrontation with liberal and radical constitutionalists, Nuri had succeeded in safeguarding the hegemonic role of the ‘ulama (leading clerics) in the new political order by giving a council of Muslim clerics veto power over parliamentary deliberations. But in July 1909 Nuri, who had received permission to interpret Shi’ite Islamic laws from the highest religious authorities in Najaf (the Iraqi city that is still today the holiest site of Shia Islam) and thereby gained political immunity for his actions, was pronounced musfid fi Arz (a corrupt element on Earth) by the tribunal. Nuri’s sentence was confirmed by the religious authorities in Najaf. He was then taken to Artillery Square in Tehran, across from Parliament and hanged like a common criminal.”

So begins Iranian-American author, feminist activist and historian, Janet Afary’s 1996 book, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906–1911. Since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd there has been a predictable surge of discussion about Iran and its history, along with fears that we may be on the verge of the mother of all wars in the Middle East. Many on the left are well versed about the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA and Britain’s MI6 that deposed Mohammed Mosaddegh, arguably the greatest reforming chief minister in Iran’s long history but how many are aware of this earlier attempt at progressive political and social change in Iran, which was also eventually thwarted by foreign powers?

As Afary points out, the legacy of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution still reverberates to this day. Upon coming to power in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared Nuri the ideological father of the Islamic Republic and made every effort to rehabilitate him. But if the Islamic Republic has celebrated Nuri, much of its secular opposition, whether residing in Iran or in exile, still looks for inspiration to the democratic legacy of the Constitutional Revolution.

As Afary tells us, the Constitutional Revolution was a multi-cultural and ideological event, a social and cultural revolution with significant grassroots dimensions. She identifies three divergent concepts of democracy that emerged during this period: 1) a European-style parliamentary democracy represented by the Majlis-I-Shawra-yi-Milli (National Consultative Assembly) and the 1906 Constitution; 2) a series of social democratic tendencies that were inspired predominantly by Transcaucasian social democratic associations with Tsarist Russia and 3) multiple expressions of radical democracy that manifested themselves in a variety of grassroots councils and societies. The complex interaction of these three sets of institutions and democratic ideologies, their attempt to challenge both the royalist government and conservative ‘ulama defined the course of the revolution. Significantly for its future, though this struggle had a dynamic of its own, it also took place within the context of imperialist rivalries — chiefly between two of the major contenders for power in the Middle East, Britain and Russia.

Iran’s increasing interaction with the capitalist world economy of the late 19th century was the catalyst for political change. On the one hand the process of dependent development encouraged by the European powers turned Iran’s economy into a periphery exporting raw materials to the more industrially advanced Europeans, while the Iranian government readily acceded to foreign demands for concessions. On the other hand, increased contact with the more democratic institutions of the West encouraged Iranian intellectuals to call for reform of their traditional society, demand greater political representation and limits on the authority of the absolutist government.

Customs reforms enacted by Belgian officials in the service of Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1896–1907) created further political resentment among merchants and artisans, leading to a series of protests in major cities from 1900 to 1905. The impact of the 1905 Russian Revolution was also keenly felt in neighboring Iran. Prior to that, many Iranians had been forced by new economic circumstances to seek work in the Transcaucasian provinces of the Tsarist Empire (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). According to a figure cited by Afary, by 1903 22.2 percent of the oil workers of the major production center of Baku were Iranian. During the 1906 strikes in the copper mines and plants of Alaverdi, in Armenia, 2,500 Iranian Azerbaijanis were singled out as, “the basic core of strikers.” By late 1905, the Russian government began to forcibly expel thousands of Iranians from Baku.

After months of strikes, Muzaffar al-Din Shah agreed to a constitutional monarchy in August 1906. The 1906 constitution reduced the powers of the Shah and his ministers, gave administrative autonomy to the provinces, granted limited suffrage to adult men, established the groundwork for a secular legislature and guaranteed freedom of the press. A large number of grassroots urban councils also appeared in this period. Almost everywhere, the foundation of such grassroots organizations led to the opening of modern secular schools, first for boys and then, in some major cities, for girls as well. The authority of the ‘ulama was challenged in both educational and legal matters as modern schools began to replace traditional religious schools and secular courts, rather than clerics, began to settle local community affairs.

Progressive Majlis delegates such as Hazan Taqizadah hoped to ratify a bill of rights that would have guaranteed freedom of expression, association and publication as well as equal political rights for male citizens regardless of ethnicity and religion. But Nuri, with the support of orthodox Iranian clerics and the backing of Najaf succeeded in ratifying Article II, which on paper gave supreme authority to a committee of the ‘ulama in the Majlis. Nuri also issued a fatwa against women’s education, arguing that it would lead to undesirable changes in gender roles, though women’s schools continued to flourish.

In the midst of all this ferment, on August 31, 1907, Britain and Russia signed a “Convention” that established each country’s respective sphere of influence in Iran. Russia was to hold sway in the north, Britain in the south, with an ample buffer zone between the two imperialist powers in central Iran. The Iranians, needless to say, were not consulted regarding this foreign partitioning of their country. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 also stipulated that neither country would interfere in Tibet’s internal affairs and recognized Britain’s primacy over Afghanistan. The Convention thereby ended the “Great Game,” the decades of political, diplomatic and indirect military confrontation between Britain and Russia in Central and South Asia and laid the groundwork for the Entente alliance of World War I.

Muzaffar al-Din Shah died in 1907 and was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Ali Shah. Muhammad Ali Shah opposed to the 1906 constitution, dissolved the Majlis as contrary to Islamic law and even bombarded the building that housed the legislature with military and political support from Britain and Russia. However, in July 1909, pro-Constitution forces marched from the provinces to Tehran, deposed Muhammad Ali Shah and reestablished the constitution under his 11-year-old son as Ahmad Shah.

Incredibly, given the turn U.S.-Iranian relations would later take, an American figured prominently in this later stage of the constitutional period. Financial adviser, Morgan Shuster arrived in Tehran in May 1911. Shuster’s fiscal reforms and active collaboration with the Democrat Party headed by Taqizadah, including helping to fend off an invasion by the ousted shah, briefly bolstered progressive forces in Iran. But a combination of the political and social shortcomings of this second constitutional period combined with the hostility of the British and Russian governments to this experiment, which they saw as threatening to their interests, sounded its death knell. Despite Shuster’s appeal to the world community for support for secular democracy in Iran, the British and Russians succeeded in obtaining his dismissal. Russian troops moved towards the city of Qazvin, just outside of Tehran and threatened to march on the capital and close the Majlis. Under increasing pressure from the British and Russian legations, the young shah’s regent and cabinet members closed the Majlis on December 24, 1911 bringing Iran’s Constitutional Revolution to an end.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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