Sunday, August 06, 2006

100 Years Ago A Romantic Time for Desperate People

They say that Mozafarr-o Din Shah was dying. The old monarch had spent most of his time to come to the throne, compared to his father he was soft. His father Naser-o Din Shah had ruled Iran for 50 years before being assassinated…. much had changed in those years.

When Naser-o Din Shah came to power, Iran had already lost her territories north of Aras River[1] to advancing Russians. These were Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, but still this was a vast empire even by the 19th century standards. Herat[2] was an Iranian city and princes of Herat, Kabul and Qandehar would consider Iranian King their protector. The Khans of Central Asia paid homage to him with taxes. Weak and beaten, Iran was still a threat to Ottoman Empire. Iranians had not lost the air of protectors of peace and faith; there was still a chance for the old days of Safavid glory to return.

“What has happened?” A telegraph from merchants and people of Tabriz[3] asked Mozaffar-o Din Shah. By the time he came to power Herat had been lost, so was Central Asia and so were parts of south east of Iran. Iranians merchants and producers had lost domestic market to Russian and British competitors, who were benefiting from several trade agreements and monopoly rights given (sold is the more accurate word) to them by government. Government rule hardly reached outside Tehran. Everyday a new incident humiliated the nation. Mishandling of popular demands by a brutal chancellor caused a nationwide movement. Iranians demanded ‘Justice’ from their King.

The initial demand clergies' and merchants' initial demand for a judiciary or a ‘House of Justice’, to address people’s concerns, became the nationwide demand for a parliament, a constitution and a government approved by parliament. French educated intellectuals joined clergies and merchants. August 5th 1906 King signed a Firman, a royal decree, to establish a parliament. Iranians called it: Majlis. Since then it has been an inseparable part of Iran’s politics. Although movement reached the initial goals of establishing a parliament and drafting a constitution it failed. There were many reasons for it.

First it was the new king: Mohammad Ali Shah. An old school king, he did not like commoners discussing his orders. His Russian brigade did not waste time to bombard Majlis. A civil war broke out. King lost and escaped to Russian embassy. His brothers leaded rebellions in his name in following years. Russians added to the difficulties by objecting to the government’s appointments and invading Iran. They occupied Tabriz and Mashhad and Northern Province of Gilan. The chaos dragged on, local chieftains raised their own standards in North, West and South. The First World War doomed the fate of constitutional movement.

Iran's neutrality was ignored by both sides. Iran became a battlefield, where Russians fought Ottomans and English hunted down German spies. Government had to evacuate Tehran and so did Majlis. By the time war ended Iranians were tired of 15 years non-stop domestic unrest and civil war. Government was bankrupt and so was the economy. 1920 coup brought to power a new face: a young Iranian Cossack named Reza Khan. In his way to become the absolute ruler of Iran and Reza Shah Pahlavi, he attacked and abolished what was left of constitutional movement: free media and election. Some of its finest leaders were killed or sent to exile. Except for a short revival in post WWII era, previous to CIA backed 1953 coup, Majlis for most its existence during monarchy was an institute with little initiative. The elections did not help Iranians to organize political parties and its predetermined results discouraged any attempt to address the nation’s concerns.

There is no wonder why there is an ongoing discussion about Constitutional Revolution in Iran and many political groups benefit from it in their legitimacy; clergies remind everyone that they initiated it and actually the first blood in it was that of a seminary student. Intellectuals consider it their first achievement. It was the first move in a country ruled for 30 centuries by unquestionable kings and it started by a question: “What has happened to us? Less than 20 years ago Emirs of Bokhara and Samarghand paid taxes to his majesty government, today one can not travel without harassment from Tabriz to Tehran, and people of Khorasan and Gorgan are selling their children for food to Turkmen. The foreigners are more respected in the business and his majesty government is incapacitated of supporting Iranian merchants and goods, we ask you: Your Majesty! what has happened to Iran?[4]

[1] The river which marks Iran’s northwestern frontier.
[2] Today the main city of Western Afghanistan, even now Iran and Iranians play a crucial role in the life of city.
[3] Located in Northwestern of Iran, the city is most identified by its role in constitutional revolution.
[4] Parts of Tabriz telegraph to Tehran.

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