Sunday, August 05, 2007

101th Anniversary of Constitutional Revolution in Iran

They say that Mozafarr-o Din Shah was dying. The old monarch had spent most of his life waiting to be a king. Still a tyrant compared to his father he was soft. His father Naser-o Din Shah had ruled Iran for 50 years with an iron feast like ancient times 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 Russian expansionism. These were today 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 Kabul and Qandehar considered the Iranian King their protector. The Khans of Central Asia paid him homage and 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 markets 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 a corrupt court. The rule of government hardly reached outside Tehran and even there it was chaotic. 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 clergies' and merchants' initial demand for an independent judiciary or a ‘House of Justice’, to protect law and order, became the nationwide demand for a parliament, a constitution and a government approved by parliament. French educated intellectuals and Najaf[4] educated clergies joined each other to demand a parliament or Mashrouteh: constraining Monarch’s absolute power. August 5th 1906 King signed a Firman, a royal decree, to establish a parliament. Iranians called it: Majlis. Since then Majlis has been an inseparable part of Iran’s politics. Revolution reached its initial goals of establishing a parliament and drafting a constitution. The success was temporary it eventually failed. There were many reasons for its failure.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 Tehran fall. King escaped to Russian embassy seeking protection and went to exile. His brothers leaded rebellions in his name in following years to restore absolutism but they lost.

Russians added to the problems of constitutional monarchy by objecting to the government’s appointments and Majlis policies and invading Iran. Their forces occupied Tabriz and Mashhad and Gilan, local resistance groups took arms and guerilla warfare broke out. The chaos dragged on, local chieftains raised their own standards in North, West and South. The First World War came and doomed the fate of constitutional movement.Iran's neutrality was ignored by Allied and Axis a[5]like. 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 Phalavi. In his way to become the absolute ruler of Iran and Reza Shah Pahlavi, he attacked and abolished what was left of constitutional system: free media and election. Some of its finest leaders were killed or sent to exile, to be killed later. Except for a short revival in post WWII era, previous to CIA backed 1953 coup, Majlis for most of its existence during Pahlavi dynasty was an institute with little initiative. The elections did not help Iranians to organize political parties. They were formalities with predetermined results. That discouraged any realpolitik.

Still Iranians never stop remembering Constitutional Revolution and cherishing its memory. There is no wonder why there is an ongoing discussion about Constitutional Revolution in Iran. The 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. Ordinary people looked at it as an occasion that they rose up on their exhausted feet and changed something for better.

After all 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 than Iranians in our Bazaars and courts and his majesty government is incapacitated of supporting Iranian industries and protecting Iranians, we ask you: Your Majesty! what has happened to Iran?[6]

[1] Aras 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] City of Najaf was the capital of seminary education for Shiite clergies at the beginning of 20th century.
[5] History repeated itself when WWII came as well.
[6] Parts of Tabriz telegraph to Tehran.
[7] Photo is Sattar Khan one of the leaders of revolution who commanded the gallant defenders of Tabriz.
[8] this is an edited copy of an article i wrote last year and published on this blog last year.

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