Constitutional Revolution and its aftermath (1906-20)


Constitutional Revolution and its aftermath (1906-20)
by Arash Monzavi-Kia

The Iranian constitutional revolution was lead by a few intellectuals who were inspired by the Western ideals of liberty and equality. The English had one in the seventeenth century, which ultimately turned their kings into figureheads and the country as lead by an elected parliament. Both the French and the Americans went even further in the eighteenth century, abolishing the royalty and instituting Roman-inspired republics. There were two triggers to the constitutional uprising in Persia; firstly, the exorbitantly higher costs of consumer goods, due to the increased tariffs and levies. Secondly, shockwaves of the Russian revolution of 1905 at the news of Japan’s unbelievable victory over the Tsar’s navy.

After a year of struggles, in 1906, Mozafar-al-din Shah agreed to the establishment of a parliament, where people’s representatives could assemble and pass laws for a democratic Persia. The first act of Majles was a European style constitution that was approved by the compromising Shah, days before his passing. However, the new king (Mohammad-Ali) was strongly opposed to any liberal restrictions over his absolute power, and conspired to use the religious Shia sentiments against the new parliament. Shah’s strongest ally was a lead cleric (Sheik Fazlollah Norrie) who despised the free-thinking constitutionalists. Clergies like Norrie believed that the laypeople of Persia were not even capable of properly washing their hands without specific instructions from a Marjah mullah, let alone passing laws!

In the summer of 1908, Shah’s Cossack brigade invaded the parliament, jailed all the deputies and murdered the liberal leaders. Similar attacks decimated the ranks of libertarians all over the country, except for Tabriz where a small-scale armed resistance grew into a full fledged uprising. The Tabriz uprising was aided by the armed revolutionaries from the neighbouring Russian territories (Baku and Armenia), and ignited similar rebellions in Rasht and Isfahan. The ensuing civil war ended when in the spring of 1909, the revolutionary forces captured Tehran, sent the murderous Shah to exile and unleashed revenge on the reactionaries like Norrie.

However, the victorious constitutionalists inherited a bankrupt country, which was not only one of the poorest in the world, but also highly indebted to Russia and Britain. All through the nineteenth century, those two colonial superpowers were engaged in a fierce competition (the Great Game) over dominance in Asia. The Great Game had bleed Persia but allowed the feeble Qajars to barely survive, as each side vied for their allegiance. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Russian animosity was replaced by a common fear of the newly rising powers of Europe (Germany) and Asia (Japan). In 1907, England and Russia had concluded a friendship pact, which also unceremoniously divided Persia into two separate spheres of influence. Russia was granted a de-facto control over all economical activities in the North, and Britain in the South. The newborn constitutional government in Tehran was helpless against that arrangement, because most of the country’s riches were already lost through concessions.

The new government’s bankruptcy also created animosity and fierce fighting among the once allied constitutionalists. The leftists (Democrats) who were inspired by the Russian socialists, wanted to radicalize the movement and confiscate land and riches from the princes, landlords and mullahs. The moderates were aiming at achieving modernization and improvement but, with no money in the coffers, could not affect any positive outcome.

The superpowers’ dominance in Iran was followed by outright occupation during the First World War. In effect, Persia became a protectorate of Russia and England, from 1912 to 1921. The level of misery and hardship during that decade is mindboggling and appalling. It is estimated that 20% of the total population (10 million) perished in civil wars (among Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Bakhtiari, Ghashghai, pro-Germans, pro-British, Arabs, Baluchi, etc.); fighting between the rival Ottomans and Russians, who used Northern Iran as their battle ground and source of supplies; and widespread famines and plagues that wiped-out entire towns and villages.

WWI killed tens of millions of people in Europe, and caused the collapse of the Russian and German empires. Russia soon turned into a communist country and Germany adopted Nazism. Britain emerged victor from the war, but so wounded and weak that London could not afford to maintain the Persian occupation all by herself. Iran was descending into chaos! The great rivalry between the two superpowers also restarted; with the Russian communists (Reds) becoming openly hostile to Britain and their counter-revolutionary allies (Whites). In 1921, the final collapse of the Whites culminated in a new power balance in the Persian arena.

Reference: The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, by Janet Afary.


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Darius Kadivar

Your welcome Arash Jaan

by Darius Kadivar on

You may also be interested in this program which is truly well made for anyone interested in Historical feedback or initiation to Iranian history in general:



Mr Monzavi

by Bunyip on

Please continue posting these and similar articles. Some of us, like myself, find these informative and interesting.


Dear Scandinavian Persian!!!

by critical thinker (not verified) on

You must be a decendant of those Vikings who landed on the Persian coasts of the Caspian sea and traded or took hostage Persian men and women back to Denmark. If so, you are indeed a rare species and must be preserved LOL


And as for your question, the leading authority on the Iranian Constitutional movemen of 1906-07 is: Dr M. Ajoudani whose book Mashruteh Irani has exposed the foundations of the Velayate Faghih.
(see this):

Arash Monzavi-Kia

Dear Darius: thanks for your supportive and contributing comment

by Arash Monzavi-Kia on

In deed the intellectual leap that Iran achieved during the Constitutional period is one of our 'golden eras'. Like our geography, our history has been mostly arid, with only brief bouts of life-giving rain that brings about a short-lived flower bed over the desert landscape.

As you mentioned, the great Iranians, who instigated that movement, many became renaissance men/women who not only delved into politics, but as well in religion, literature and education. The Iran of 20th century owes almost everything to them and should remember them, as many died young with dreams unfulfilled.

The contributors were numerous and varied, from the rank of nobility and clergy to the religious reformists (Sheikhi and Bahai's), to the leftists. However, you are correct to judge their inspirations mostly 'Western', that is liberal and democratic. At the time (pre WWI era), the liberal West was the undisputed carrier of the 'humanist flame', and our intellectuals followed that ray of hope.

Now, to be perfectly honest to the memory of all those who strived and perished during the 1979 revolution; I would like to add that many of them also had 'liberty, independence and equality' in mind, but were mostly suspicious of the West. Intellectually, they were the products of the 1960's and 1970's (let's call it the Vietnam War era) when the Western civilization had lost not only its moral and intellectual compass, but also its ideological legitimacy in the eyes of the third world countries.

That is how nostalgia for a pure past (Islam) could fool even the Western educated youth (disgusted by the decadence and selfish indifference that they had seen) into accepting the leadership of a dictatorial religious leader, who dragged Iran to the brink of destruction. 

Arash M-K


To critical thinker!

by scandinavian persian (not verified) on

I want to read about Constitutional Revolution.Can you recomend any book?



Mr Monzavi

by critical thinker (not verified) on

You sure live up to your name's meaning "monzavi". Is it our fault that you have been in "solitary" all these years and now out of nowhere have rediscovered the Iranian constitutional revolution (thanks to Ms Afray!!!!)?

Neither Ms Afray nor a second quote through you can be a reliable reference on the constitutional movement of 1906-07. This matter has been thoroughly researched and debated years before your or Ms Afray were born.

Please find a different topic if you are bored and want to seek attention. This is old news.

Darius Kadivar

They Were Role Models ...

by Darius Kadivar on

What I am amazed by in regard to this generation was their undeniable courage and stamina but also the level of genuine commitment in offering a modern system of government to their country which was truly unique in our long history of authoritarian rule. But more interestingly, these men were Rennaissance Men in that they tried to gather the best of what existed in the world of ideas that shaped the democractic states of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Many were familiar with the thoughts and ideas of French Philosophers, they were francophile, and admired the works of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesqieu as well as those of the American Revolution's founding fathers from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Pain to Jefferson or Lincoln.

Unlike the Revolution of 1979, those of 1906 were not trying to build a society based on confrontation with the West or any other part of the World but were motivated by a genuine idea of nation building and bridging the cultural and intellectual gap with the most progressive societies of the time which happened to be in the West. They were not only speaking of a Dialogue of thoughts and ideas but tried to put it into application maybe at times naively (because they could not expect that Great Britain or Tzarist Russia both having a constitution could deny them the same rights) but certainly with genuine knowledge about the benefits and responsabilities that a parliamentarian system of government implied.

That was never the case for the intellectuals of the Islamic Revolution whose leader Khomeiny had hardly even studied the Western Thought or understood the intellectual process and benefits of democracy.

I think as a nation we need to look and reexamine this period which like historian Abbas Milani quite rightly refers to as a Golden Age of Iran's civil society and certainly one that greatly contributed in its making. May it serve as a basis for our current struggles and aspirations for a future democratic and secular Iran. Maybe then an Iranian Solidarnosc may not be such a vague and unachievable idea after all ...

Thanks for Sharing,