The Iranian constitutionalists were ecstatic about their victory. But while basking in their enthusiasm, they had taken the Shah’s pledges to respect the constitution at face value, and failed to understand that Britain who they believed was the natural ally of the people, had simply supported them to counteract Russian presence in Iran.
In fact, both Britain and Russia secretly saw the Iranian Constitutional Revolution as a disruptive force which threatened their imperial interests. Britain was also concerned about the military rise of Germany, while Russia had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and was struggling with political instability due to its own 1905 revolution.
The two powers called for a convention to eliminate the Iranian zones of conflict. Though the Anglo-Russian Agreement claimed to recognize Iran’s independence, it divided it into three separate zones. Russia snatched up the north, while the British zone paralleled the Persian Gulf, all the way to the Indian empire on the east. The area in between was marked as neutral.
Iranians would soon learn that however predatory the two powers, they were even more dangerous when they put aside their differences. While the new monarch, Mohammad Ali Shah, was encouraged by the 1907 agreement to pursuit his goal of destroying the constitutional government, most Iranians were dismayed.
In September of the same year, an article in the press declared that the National Assembly should verify the accuracy of the agreement, to see whether it was true that “while we are living in our house others are arranging its disposal and making compacts and conventions with one another without even informing us of the matter.”
The Russians encouraged the Shah to repudiate the constitution. Going into hiding, the Shah cowardly relied on the Russian Cossack and their colonel, Liakhoff, who let loose a reign of terror in the capital. The Cossack occupied state offices, and dissidents were brutally killed and arrested.
News of the reign of terror reached the provinces, and a national resistance movement began. In Tabriz, the second largest city in Iran, the constitutionalists occupied the administrative headquarters and declared that they no longer recognized the Shah.
The Russians then dispatched Cossack troops to Tabriz. The forces surrounded the city. The siege was terrifyingly brutal with hunger and disease killing people every day and reducing many to eating grass to survive. Led by Sattar Khan, a man who had risen from obscurity, and his deputy Bagher Khan, the constitutionalists drove out loyalist forces of Tabriz. This victory greatly influenced other provinces of Iran in their fight for democracy.
But finally, after holding on for months, Tabriz fell. The Russian Cossack and their allies, stormed the city. Their victory was short lived for as soon as citizens returned to health, they resumed their fight. Their defiance grew into a national movement.
New armies rose under the leadership of the Bakhtiari tribe, who were resolute and tough warriors, and they began to march to Tehran. The mobilization of the tribes and nationalists set off alarm signals in London and St. Petersburg. The Russians warned the constitutionalists that unless they stop marching, the Russian army would step in. But the rebels shrugged off their warning.
In June 1909, the constitutionalist troops entered Tehran. The Cossack brigade fought back but when the Shah abdicated and fled to Russia, Liakhov surrendered.
The leaders of the constitutional armies met with the clergy and members of the parliament. They deposed Mohmmad Ali Shah and replaced him with his young son, Sultan Ahmed Shah.
The victory was celebrated. By now Iran had made remarkable strides toward democracy. Universal male suffrage had been proclaimed. Religious minorities were guaranteed seats in the parliament. Vigorous political parties emerged favoring women’s rights and public education.
But the vibrant democracy was still struggling. British and Russian occupiers ignored the laws. Signing the agreement to divide Iran between them, they intended to crush Iran’s parliament. Desperate to save their democracy, Iranians turned to America. After all, United States was an inspiration—a former British colony that had thrown off the chains of its oppressor.
They hired Morgan Shuster as Treasurer General, hoping that he could help force the Russians and British to submit to the parliament’s will. Shuster had an impressive background in organizing chaotic countries. He’d designed a tax system for the Philippines and had been director of the Cuban customs service. He had a reputation for being a hard worker and utterly incorruptible.
Shuster asked Parliament to raise a team dedicated to enforcing tax laws. The first trained units were sent to confiscate property from tax delinquents, mostly wealthy landowners, in the Russian sphere of influence. Russia reacted by sending troops to northern Iran, threatening to occupy Tehran if Parliament did not stop meddling. Britain did the same, reinforcing its garrisons in the south.
Parliament did not back down. Shuster would write later that the Iranian parliament, “more truly represented the best aspirations of the Persians than any other body that has ever existed in that country…. It was loyally supported by the great mass of the Persians and that alone was sufficient justification for its existence. The Russian and British governments, however, were constantly instructing their Ministers at Tehran to obtain this concession or block that one, failing utterly to recognize the days had passed in which the affairs, lives and interests of millions of people were entirely in the hands of an easily intimated… despot.”
In 1911, the two powers gave Tehran an ultimatum. Parliament must dismiss Shuster and promise not to engage foreign subjects again without first obtaining approval from Britain and Russia.
The threat was read amid deep silence in the grounds of the parliament building. Shuster later said that a hush fell upon the crowd. Deputies, old men and young, clergy, lawyers, merchants and princes, sat tense in their seats. Finally, one rose and said, “It may be the will of God that our liberty and our sovereignty shall be taken away from us, but let us not sign them away with our own hands.” Though they knew that the reaction from Britain and Russia would be harsh, every man cast his own die of fate, staking the safety of himself and his family, and hurled back into the great Bear of the North, the answer of a desperate people unwilling to sacrifice their national dignity.
By its defiance, the parliament sealed its fate. Russian troops occupied Tehran. They ordered the new Shah to dissolve the parliament and dismiss Shuster. Shuster would later say in his book, The Strangling of Persia, that as he was leaving Iran, a realization swept over him that “the hopes of a patient, long-suffering” Muslim people “of reclaiming their position in the world had been ruthlessly stamped out by the armies of a so-called civilized and Christian nation.”
Iran’s first experiment with democracy was over in 1911, but it left a vivid impression in the psyche of her nation. And perhaps the destiny of Iran would have been different had she not sat on top of an ocean of oil.