Iran's constitutional revolution 1905


Civil Liberties and the Making of Iran's First Constitution, *

And the American citizens participation in it.

            In 1905 Iran (Persia) was still under the rule of the Qajar Dynasty who had ruled Persia since 1781. Over the duration of Qajar rule, Persia had gradually become a victim of Russian and British imperial policies in The Great Game. This international rivalry had also weakened successive central governments in Tehran. Elements of Persia's society believed the only way they could save their country from total domination by foreign powers was to counter the weak monarchy, establisih a democratic system, and stop it from being manipulated by foreign powers. It was felt that the best way to do this was to develop a written code of laws, or a Constitution. 

On April 5, 1906, after a year-long series of popular protests and demonstrations, a reluctant Mozaffar al-Din Shah (r.1896-1907) issued a royal proclamation that called for the formation of a National Consultative Majlis and the writing of a constitution.[1]  On August 6, 1906, the first Legislative assembly (called THE Supreme National Assembly), was formed to make the preparations for the opening of the first term of the Majlis (parliament) and drafting the election law thereof.  In the first five months of the Revolution, constitutionalists conducted popular elections and chose members of the parliament.  The electoral laws of September 1906 established a corporate and estate form of representation and gave limited franchise to six classes of male voters: members of the Qajar aristocracy, other nobles and landowners, the clerics, as well as the merchants, the smallholders, and members of trade guilds. Hasan Taqizadeh, the radical deputy from Azerbaijan, later reported that 90% of eligible voters in major cities, and less than 50% in rural areas, voted for 156 seats in the Majlis. Taqizadeh probably exaggerated, since a huge number of voters in tribal and provincial areas did not have access to participate in the election. Still, most contemporary observers agree that this first-ever Iranian election was popularly embraced and was an example of democratic politics.[2] 

Soon after the formation of the Majlis in Tehran, and before many provincial deputies arrived, an elite group of constitutionalists drafted the short constitution of 1906. This document, which was influenced by the 1791 French and the 1831 Belgian constitutions, laid out the skeleton of a modern parliamentary system for Iran. [3]  Mozzafar-al-Din Shah signed the constitution on December 30, 1906. He died five days later.

The First Majlis included deputies from Tehran and the provinces, who were elected for a two-year term (Article 5).  Decisions were made by a simple majority (Article 6). The deliberations of the Majlis were to be public.  Journalists could attend the sessions as observers and publish the public debates of the assembly (Article 13).  The Majlis was a legislative body. It proposed new laws and approved legislation that cabinet ministers forwarded to that body. The parliament ratified all financial transactions, foreign concessions, government contracts and treaties, and established the budget of various ministries (Articles 22-26 ).[4] 

The shah's absolutist powers were substantially curtailed and he was required to uphold the Constitution (Article 51).  He remained head of state, but governed through ministers responsible to the Majlis. He no longer controlled the treasury and his rights were limited to those specifically stated in the Constitution.  The shah was obligated to uphold the Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of organization and freedom of the press, among other rights (Article 13).

The new limits that the Majlis had imposed on the shah, as well as the new discourse of justice, liberty, and equality, would create a tremendous paradigm shift in early  20th-century Iran.  Both the Majlis and the newspapers were given extraordinary rights compared to earlier times, rights that were in direct violation of traditional social hierarchies.  The parliament, for example, could propose any measures which it regarded as "conducive to the well-being of the government and the people (Article 15). All the laws of the nation had to be approved by the Majlis ( Article 16). No part of the nation's resources could be sold without Majlis authorization (Article 22). No foreign treaties could be enacted, or foreign debts acquired, without similar authorization (Article 24). The Majlis could request from the shah the resignation of ministers who had violated the Constitution (Articles 28, 29).  Meetings of the Majlis were open to the public. Journalists were free to attend and report whatever they heard (Article 13),  and they did,  creating a whole new public arena for dissent.  At the same time, the 1906 Constitution left many issues unresolved. For example, there was no bill of rights in the 1906 law, nor were the limits to the authority of the executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government clearly defined.  In order to address these concerns, the Majlis established a committee of six in the winter of 1907 to write a set of supplementary laws to the constitution. All members of this committee were required to know a foreign language in order to consult European constitutional laws.[5]

The Constitutional Amendments approved in 1907 provided, within limits, for freedom of press, speech, and association, and for security of life and property.  Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were recognized as citizens and given equality before the law. Ultimately however, the new Iranian law could not reconcile the conflict between religious law and secular law and gave unprecedented new institutional powers to the clerical establishment. It thereby undermined the new civil liberties the Constitution granted and curtailed the power of both the Parliament and the Judiciary.

Prior to the Constitutional Revolution, a dual system of authority existed in traditional Iranian society, where several other patriarchs- -the clerics, the tribes, and the local notables, including princes and other provincial governors-- checked the patrimonial powers of the king in some arenas.  There were also two sets of laws: Shariat law and ‘urf customary law.  Shariat law was derived from the Quran and the hadiths, judgments of the twelve Shi'i imams, and decisions of the jurists.[6] The state administered the ‘urf customary law (often pre-Islamic in origin), which dealt mostly with criminal conduct.

A significant result of the Iranian constitutional revolution was the creation of the Iranian Majlis (parliament), which is the longest continuously elected body in the Middle East. For over a century, deputies had to be elected. During both the Pahlavi era and the period of the Islamic Republic, the nation's highest leader (the Shah or the supreme leader) tried to control the elections to the Majles.  But they nevertheless had to have elections and  contrary to many other countries deputies were not appointed by the Shahs or later by the ayatollahs. Since 1963 women have been present as elected members in the parliament.  In this respect, the Majlis is the longest standing experiment in the Middle East.

            Another interesting point to note is that during the course of the Constitutional Revolution, especially in the struggles in Tabriz, an American missionary called Howard Baskerville, who was sympathetic to the cause of the freedom fighters, was killed fighting alongside them. After reestablishing the constitutional order in 1909, the Majles turned to the nation's finances. In 1911 the Majlis invited Morgan Shuster, an American financial advisor, and made him the nation's treasurer.  Shuster became a staunch defender of the fledgling constitutional order and publicly exposed Russia and Britain schemes in the Times of London.  The Great Powers turned against Shuster and ordered him removed from his post.  The Iranian Majles defended Shuster to the end. Russia, with British support, sent troups to Iran, and in this way the Constitutional Revolution was brought to an end. The moving story of this last chapter of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution was written down by Shuster, when he returned to the US in his The Strangling of Persia (1912), a classic study of the period.

* Major part of this article was written by Janet Afary which originally appeared in Houri Berberian and Mohamad Tavakoli-Tarkhi, eds,  Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. 25, No. 2 (summer 2005), and Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1996).  It was summarized, and edited with additional comments by Goudarz Eghtedari and Janet Afary's permission.  All references are from the original article.

[1] As Nazim al-Islam Kirmani writes in his memoir, the shah initially insisted on calling the new assembly an Islamic Consultative Majlis, but the constitutionalists rejected this proclamation. See Kirmani, Tarikh-i Bidari, Vol. 1 (Tehran:  Agah Press, 1983), pp. 560-563.        

[2]See Browne, "The Persian Constitutionalists," pp. 12-13.  There were, of course, areas such as Isfahan, where leading mujtahids, or elite members of the community, appointed the deputies, rather than allowing them to be elected.  In Tabriz, progressive candidates were favored.  The liberal cleric Siqat al-Islam believed that the social democrats meddled with the election in Tabriz and that his rival Taqizadeh should not have been elected. See Gholam Hussein Mirza Saleh,  Bohran-i Demokrasi dar Majlis-i Avval  (Tehran: Homa Press, 1993), pp. 1-8. 

[3] The electoral laws of 1906 were also influenced to an extent by Bismarck's imperial German Constitution.  Hasan Taqizadeh stated that the electoral laws "were based on various European systems and particularly on the German model."  On this point, see Browne, "The Persian Constitutionalists," Proceedings of the Central Asian Society (1909), p. 12.   One area where there is clear correspondence is Article 6 of the Iranian law, where the number of deputies from each province is determined (with larger provinces having more deputies than smaller ones).  This is similar to Article 6 of the German Constitution. See Louis L. Snyder, ed., Documents of German History   (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 227. The Second Majlis ratified universal male suffrage in the autumn of 1911.

[4] For discussions of the 1906 Constitution see also Said Amir Arjomand "The Constitutional Revolution," Encyclopedia Iranica, pp. 187-192, and Laurence Lockhart, "The Constitutional Laws of Persia:  An Outline of Their Origin and Development," Middle East Journal 13 (Autumn 1959), pp. 372-388.

[5] See Mozakerat-i Majlis , Du al-Hajja 28, 1324 (February 12, 1907), p. 79. Among the most important of these were: (1) Javad Sa'd al-Dawleh, an Azerbaijani merchant and Minister of Commerce in the court of Muzaffar al-Din Shah, who had lived in Belgium for some time and was the leader of the liberal/radical faction of the Majlis in this period; (2) Taqizadeh, the celebrated deputy from Azerbaijan who had close ties to Social Democrats in Russian-ruled Baku and Tbilisi, and eventually replaced Sa'd al-Dawleh as the leader of the liberal/radical faction;  (3) Sadiq Mustashar al-Dawleh, who had studied in Istanbul and worked at Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a deputy from Azerbaijan and a close friend of Taqizadeh; (4) Muhammad Hussein Amin al-Zarb, one of the key financial backers of the Constitutional Revolution.

[6] Sykes,  A History of Persia, Vol. 2,  p. 384.

Submitted by goudarz on Wed, 04/02/2008 - 9:04am.