There is no doubt that our country's history shapes not only our national identity, but our individual psychology. The Iranian constitutional revolution of 1905 was one of the most important events in 20th century Iran, which to this day continues to inspire and haunt us; a movement that was extremely effective but was ultimately crushed by foreign powers and an incompetent monarchy. The events around the constitutional revolution fill many Iranians with a sense of helplessness and anger about the long pursuit of freedom, and failure to establish a democratic state to this day.
In 1905, Iran was desperate for her independence. For years, she has been caught between the claws of the Russian bear and the jaws of the British lion, fighting for her resources.
She stood in the way of Russian ambition to reach the Persian Gulf. The Ottomans in Turkey were recovering from their disastrous war with Russia, while Britain tightened its grip on Egypt. And France had swallowed up Algeria, Tunisia and was moving in on Morocco.
Iran had lost several wars against Russia and Britain, and had been forced to give up her Caucasus and Afghan territories. Russia and Britain had demanded harsh capitulations, opening the way for a dramatic influx of mass-manufactured goods. The volume of trade grew tenfold.
Since the early 1800s, the Qajar nobles had been profoundly traumatized by the discovery of Europe’s advancements. To fight back, the Qajar monarch, Naser ed-Din Shah, had introduced reforms. He had created a small Cossack brigade, the first railway, and had brought electricity to major cities. He also introduced the first state newspaper and a modern high school. New educational programs started creating a professional middle class, familiar with western ways. He’d also introduced the telegraph, which helped connect geographically diverse regions.
To pay for these reforms, he had needed financing, so he did the worst thing possible: He’d given economic privileges to foreign governments and concession hunters. Men like Bardon de Reuter, a British citizen, received control over Iranian roads, rivers, telegraphs, factories, and extraction of resources. The British Imperial Bank of Persia purchased monopoly to print banknotes. A Russian company won contracts to build highways. Another obtained a monopoly over the fishing industry in the Caspian.
But the foreign competition caused many local businesses to lose their livelihood. The crisis reached its tipping point in 1891. The Shah had sold yet another concession, this time to an Englishman named Major Talbot. In return for personal gifts to the Shah, Talbot acquired a fifty-year monopoly over the production, distribution and exportation of all tobacco.
The locals went on strike. The strike, thanks to the new telegraph system, spread like wildfire, sparking off dangerous mass demonstrations across the country. The Shah gave in and annulled the concession. But soon after he was assassinated by a follower of Jamal ed-din Asadabadi, a pan-Islamic propagandist.
The new monarch, Muzzafar ed-Din Shah, reversed his father’s policies. To finance his medical visits to Europe, he negotiated new loans with Britain and Russia. He wanted to keep his opposition quiet, so he permitted the formation of commercial and cultural associations. But this only encouraged his opposition to form political organizations. The organizations were filled with members of all social classes, from nobility to intelligentsia, bazaar merchants, craftsmen, tribal chiefs and ulama.
In the meantime, global events spiraled toward inflation. The price of sugar rose by 33%. Wheat 90%. Then the government raised tariffs on local merchants. And that triggered one intense public protest after another.
The protesters clashed with the Cossacks. Twenty-two people died and one hundred suffered serious injuries. The ulama compared the Qajars to the notorious Yazid, the Sunni leader who had martyred the Shia Imam Hussein, an emotional historical event for Iranians, and then they too went on strike.
The Shah finally signed a proclamation for the convening of a Constituent National Assembly. The constitution drafted in 1907 called for a parliamentary system of government. It contained a “bill of rights” which guaranteed each citizen equality before the law, protection of life, property, safeguards from arbitrary arrest, and freedom to publish newspapers and organize associations.
Another divided the government into three branches: legislative, judicial and executive. It created a legislative branch, which included a parliament called the Majlis, and a Senate, with goals to achieve independence from British and Russian imperialism, end royal corruption, giving the elected legislature final approval over all loans, concessions and budget. Ultimately, it diverted power from the Shah, giving it instead to the parliament.
The Shah signed the constitution, agreeing that from then on he was under the rule of the law. People were ecstatic. The constitutional revolution was a huge victory. Not only was it the first revolution in the region that demanded the creation of a constitution, it also proved that change could occur with peaceful protests.
But the celebration was short lived, because Britain and Russia had signed the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, secretly dividing Iran into two spheres of influence. This created another period of struggle, as the British supported the Shah in his attempt to eliminate the new parliament.
Next --> "Iran's Constitutional Revolution - Part 2"