On December 12, 1905, following closure of the bazaar, a huge crowd gathered at Tehran’s Friday mosque to protest the mistreatment of the city’s sugar merchants by the governor of the capital and to demand that the mojtaheds of the city come out in their defense. The crowd listened to Jamal al-Din Isfahani, a middle-ranking popular preacher and a crypto-Babi, who rebuked the governor for his cruelty, warned that the Iranian nation under the aegis of the deserved justice and public security, and called for the lifting of the state’s draconian price controls. Further, he declared that both the common law, as enforced by the state, and the Islamic law, as practiced by the mojtaheds, must comply with “the law” (qanun), a notion new to Iranian audiences that implied the Constitution. If the shah is a true Muslim, he stressed, he too must comply with the people’s wishes. The demands epitomized the predicament of a revolution that his sermon served to inaugurate.

These bold claims were bound to agitate the pro-state ulama. In the midst of Jamal al-Din’s sermon, the government-appointed Imam of the Tehran Friday Mosque, outraged by the preacher’s outspokenness, ordered him forcefully pulled from the pulpit and expelled. Subsequently, the club-wielding government guards rushed into the mosque and drove out the protesting crowd. The next day, some of the ulama who had been present at the gathering and were offended by the government’s overreaction left the city in symbolic protest and took sanctuary (bast) in the local shrine of ‘Abd al-‘Azim south of the capital. The shrine soon became the center of protest, and the population of Tehran came in droves to sympathize with the protesters.

The incident marked the beginning of a popular movement that eventually came to be recognized as the Constitutional Revolution (Enqelab-e Mashruteh), a transformational experience with major consequences for twentieth-century Iran. The previously described episode highlights most, if not all, of the elements that would shape the revolution: merchants and artisans resentful of an inefficient and intrusive state; the lower- and middle-ranking mullahs of various shades calling on the mojtaheds to come out in support of the people; the Qajar state’s desperate reactions to demands for popular participation and eventually for a constitution; and finally, the urban population in large numbers (fig. 6.1). To these groups were added in due course the Western-educated elite, who joined the indigenous radical elements and helped shape the parliament (Majles) and frame the modern constitution.

The emerging constitutional movement, with its distinctive pluralistic features that allowed for diverse social and political groups to participate, however, soon ran counter to a royalist front that, backed by imperial Russia, aimed to reassert the power of an autocratic Qajar shah in power and preserve the privileges of the ruling elite. The revolution also contested the privileges of the very clerical class that first came to its support but soon changed course as the constitution and the Majles imposed limits on the mojtaheds’ sphere of authority and defined the boundaries of the shari‘a. The outcome was a multifaceted struggle that helped define Iran’s modern national identity, emerging first in the civil war of 1908–1909 and continuing in the two decades before the rise of Reza Shah and the establishment of the Pahlavi order in 1925.

Figure 6.1. The multitudes gathered in Sabzeh Maydan (in front of the Tehran bazaar) to commemorate the day of ‘Ashura signified a new urban force that was soon to propel the Constitutional Revolution.

Postcard, c. 1900s. Author’s collection.

In these respects, the Constitutional Revolution was unrivaled in the history of the modern Middle East. Neither the Young Turks Revolution of 1908 nor the anticolonial movements in Egypt in 1919, and elsewhere in the Arab world after World War I, shared the extent of the Constitutional Revolution’s grassroots base. During the five decades of Pahlavi rule, many of the political achievements of the Constitutional Revolution would be compromised by the arbitrary conduct of the state. Later, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 abrogated the Constitution of 1906 altogether. Yet the Constitutional Revolution remained a turning point in the history of Iran above all because it marked a step forward on the path to sociopolitical modernity. Under the veneer of Western liberalism and constitutional order, the revolution tried to offer indigenous answers to a distinctly Perso-Shi‘i problem of social justice that had long been present in the milieu of Iranian dissent. In effect, the revolution sought to secularize Shi‘i millenarian aspirations by incorporating such modern concepts as nationalism, the rule of law, limits to state power, individual rights, and people’s representation. The revolution juxtaposed these principles with the ancient vestiges of kingship and the clerical establishment. The civil war of 1908–1909 between the constitutionalists and the royalists was the climax of a revolutionary struggle, for it weakened Qajar rule and relegated, at least temporarily, the conservative clergy to the political wilderness. The turmoil caused by the revolution, however, was compounded by the European threat of military occupation before and during World War I, which brought an abrupt end to the constitutional experiment and dampened revolutionary aspirations.


Internal dissent on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution drew on popular discontent from the pulpit of the mosques and through the nascent press and modern schools, but it still relied on voices of protest abroad to articulate its message. Greater exposure to the outside world through education, press, and travel for some Iranian observers augmented Western material advances and in turn bolstered the discourse of decline and renewal, as well as the urgency to adopt what they called modern civilization.

Polemical tracts reached the Iranian public less in print form and more through handwritten copies that circulated in dissident circles and influenced the rhetoric and the substance of revolutionary preaching. Based mostly in Istanbul but also in Cairo, Beirut, Calcutta, Mumbai, and in the Caucasus, the works of this small circle were barely known to the general public, and even the educated elite did not engage in their reformist discourse throughout the Naseri era. Only by the turn of the twentieth century did the reform literature enjoy greater exposure among semiclandestine circles inside Iran. In particular, despair over Iran’s material plight and moral degeneration, and denouncements of the corrupt establishment and the intransigent, found new audiences. The small circle of Iranians abroad consisted mostly of those of heterodox or minority backgrounds who were often in contact with one another and reading one another’s works—a “republic of letters” of a sort. Their improvised ideas of reform included critiques of the conservative officialdom but seldom the mojtahed establishment. The alternative models they suggested were often based on facile readings of the French Enlightenment or inspired by ideals of benevolent rule, as seen through the prism of Russian authoritarianism. Overall, they were naively praiseful of Europe, though often inconsistent in their quest for modernity.

An important area of dialogue centered on education. Reformist literature of the late Qajar era and the Constitutional Revolution lamented illiteracy and the absence of modern educational institutions and was critical of the madrasa curriculum and its deficiencies. It also called for a change in the Persian script, one instance of a broader preoccupation shared by reformers in many non-Western societies. The Persian highly stylized shekasteh handwriting common in the Qajar era, though undeniably an art form, was viewed as cumbersome for the demands of public education. The lack of modern sanitation and modern medicine, malnutrition, and the absence of an effective public health system to combat outbreaks such as cholera and to control diseases such as smallpox and trachoma were other sources of grievance. Glaring scientific and industrial shortcomings in comparison with “civilized” countries was the cause of profound concern. Images of decay and deprivation in Iran were contrasted not only to idealized notions of Western material advances but also to an idealized vision of Iran’s ancient past. Only on the model of Western powers, it was argued, and the modern rule of law and constitution, could Iran overcome its rampant maladies. The reformist literature of the nineteenth century was generally oblivious to Europe’s colonial ambitions, and when it wasn’t, it often implied that falling under Western imperial might was an inevitable fate of the weaker nations.

One notable anomaly with reference to the impending colonial threat was the celebrated statesman Mirza Malkom Khan (1833–1909). His critique not only showed some awareness of the European threat but also aspired to adapt to the realities of the Iranian environment and to Islamic mores and values. A man of complex personality, Malkom’s creative mind nevertheless left a lacuna between his high-minded positivist perspective and his self-serving financial interests. His influence on the Constitutional Revolution nevertheless went beyond a mere proposal for the state’s reorganization. He considered the reform of the Persian script as key to the transmission of knowledge to the masses. To demonstrate his point, in 1884 he even published in London Sa‘di’s Golestan in his improvised alphabet.

Malkom’s eclectic “Humanity” creed (Adamiyat), inspired by August Comte’s positivist Religion of Humanity, was an extension of his quasi-masonic Faramush-khaneh of earlier years. Rising above organized religion, it aspired to the universal values of scientific progress, human rights, and tolerance. He even persuaded Naser al-Din Shah to issue a decree similar to the Ottoman 1856 Imperial Rescript of the Tanzimat period, to recognize for the first time the security of all the subjects’ basic rights to their lives and properties. Yet it was the disregard for such measures rebuked in the pages of the periodical Qanun that began to reach Iranian readers through clandestine channels.

In publishing Qanun, Malkom joined forces with Sayyed Jamal al-Din Afghani, and his cohorts. Expelled from Iran in 1891 at the outset of the Regie Protest, Afghani became a vociferous critic of the Qajar state. As much as Malkom was a prophet of secular modernity, Afghani was a pioneer of political Islam, albeit in the garb of Ottoman-backed pan-Islamic activism, an ideology with little popular support among Shi‘i Iranians. What did appeal to Afghani’s Iranian audiences, to whom he spoke in Persian, his mother tongue, was a politicized reading of Islam not merely as a set of beliefs and practices, or the tedious works of the Shi‘i jurists, but as a community of resistance, a force of unanimity that had already proved effective during the Tobacco Protest. The message of defying Europe’s imperial powers through religio-national solidarity resonated in the Iranian milieu through wide distribution of his famous letter to Shirazi. The clandestine “nocturnal letters” (shabnameh) jellygraphs in Iran also circulated dissident views and were even posted on the mosques’ gates and other public buildings. After the assassination of Naser al-Din Shah, Afghani acquired greater fame in Iranian dissident circles for instigating the removal of a tyrant who had arrested the course of Iran’s progress. That Afghani and some of his devotees were paid agents of another tyrant, Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid, and that he himself wished to be a “sword” in the hand of any power that could hire his services (perhaps with the exception of the British), did not seem to tarnish his image even at the end of his life—he died of cancer in 1897 while under house arrest in Istanbul. For the “philosopher of the East,” as Afghani liked to portray himself, a nostalgic reading of the Islamic past was complemented by a call for religious renewal, for an Islamic Reformation, as he called it, that could rescue Muslims not only from the yoke of Christian colonialism but also from their tyrannical rulers.

The odd union of Malkom and Afghani, prophets of Western modernity and pan-Islamism, anticipated the ideological tension that later riddled the Constitutional Revolution. The ideological link between these figures and a new generation of Iranian activists at the turn of the twentieth century was maintained through the likes of Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1854–1897). An original thinker with some zest, he indigenized Malkom’s positivist reformism and borrowed from Afghani his anti-imperialist stance. What he contributed to this admixture of nineteenth-century Iranian dissent was an ideology of conscious nationalism rooted in the idealized narrative of the ancient Iranian past and set against the gloomy realities of its present. Kermani’s nationalism, with its anti-Arab and even anti-Islamic outbursts, underscored a collective destiny and called for the overhaul of Iran’s waning moral resolve and cultural orientation. His writings, mostly unpublished, nevertheless came to be an important feature of the constitutional and the post-constitutional intellectual landscape. Kermani’s personal makeup contributed to the fluidity of his ideas, but also to his many flaws and his vacillating political orientation. Born in 1856 to an old but impoverished Sufi family with Zoroastrian ties in the religiously diverse city of Kerman, in the remote heart of southeastern Iran, he was an early example of a modern intellectual dissident. His birthplace, a venue of Sufi Ne‘matollahi, Shaykhi, Usuli, Zoroastrian, Babi, and Baha’i loyalties, not only helped shape Kermani but also produced numerous dissidents in the constitutional period. Kermani gravitated toward Babi thought through his philosophy teacher, who also taught him the rudiments of Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. His short career as a tax collector came to an abrupt end following a quarrel with the provincial governor, who forced him into exile.

The young Kermani eventually landed in Istanbul, where he worked the rest of his short life as a freelance journalist, translator, political activist, and private tutor. Writing for a while under a pseudonym for the Persian popular weekly Akhtar, published out of Istanbul, Kermani’s articles addressed current affairs, economy, politics, education, and culture from a critical perspective but in a veiled language acceptable to the newspaper’s readership. By underscoring Iran’s sociopolitical ills, he hoped to reach wider audiences. Displaying symptoms typical of an angry intellectual in exile grappling with an identity crisis, he conceived of a national identity enthralled with the glories of the ancient past, which he had discovered mostly through the Shahnameh but also through Greek and Roman texts available in French and the emerging European scholarship on the subject. In contrast, in his later years he portrayed Arabo-Islamic influence as alien, backward, and responsible for Iran’s presumed degeneration and decline. Only by casting aside this dark legacy of prejudice and pollution, Kermani argued, could the Iranians recover their lost purity and once more rejuvenate their country.

Drastic critique of the Islamic past, it can be argued, could have occurred only in a milieu impregnated with heterodoxy. Kermani was not a conventional Babi loyal to the messianic precepts and its proto-shari‘a system devised by the Bab in his Bayan, even though for a while he did remain loyal to the Azali activist brand of Babism and a passionate supporter of the Azali sectarian battles against the Baha’is. Yet the Babi past served Kermani as an intellectual springboard to come to terms with European modernity. His intellectual profile included not only the European Enlightenment but also a complex amalgam of materialist philosophy, socialist political programs, and nationalism with a chauvinist bent. It was the renewed subversion against the Qajar state, however, that in 1896 cost Kermani his life, when he and two of his cohorts were arrested and detained by order of the Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid, who seems to have been alerted of an anti-Qajar conspiracy in the making. After the assassination of Naser al-Din Shah, they were duly extradited to Iran as accomplices and executed in Tabriz by the order of then crown prince Mohammad ‘Ali Mirza (1872–1925). Whatever Kermani’s role, it was his memory as an anti-Qajar dissident that elevated him to the status of a martyr in the narrative of the Constitutional Revolution.

Despite his curious support for pan-Islamism, Kermani shared anti-Islamic sentiments with another intellectual exile of his time, Mirza Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh (1812–1878), an Azarbaijani playwright and ardent social commentator who had spent most of his adult life in the Russian civil service in Tiflis. An unabashed critic of all organized religions, and especially Islam, he advocated a rationalistic view of civilization that was the closest a nineteenth-century Iranian expatriate could come to the Deist ideas of the French Enlightenment (albeit via Russian literature). The chief vehicle for this social and moral critique was modern European theater, a medium new to the Iranian (and Azarbaijani) audience. Even though Akhundzadeh’s plays were published abroad and enjoyed a sizable readership in their original Turkish and later in Persian translation, they were hardly ever performed. A major theme in Akhundzadeh’s works, inspired by the simplicity of Molière’s plays, was the contrast between the hold of old beliefs and practices, the “superstitions,” in Muslim societies and the potency of modern civilizational forces, especially the modern sciences and medicine.

More so in his unpublished polemics, Akhundzadeh internalized the positivist critique of Islam and its incompatibility with the demands of the modern world. In fictional correspondence dated 1863 between Kamal al-Dowleh, an Iranian skeptic writing from Tabriz, and his interlocutor, an Indian Shi‘i prince residing in the holy cities of southern Iraq, Akhundzadeh offered a daring criticism of Shi‘i beliefs and institutions. He held Islam, its scripture and doctrine, and more pointedly, the Shi‘i beliefs and teachings responsible for Iran’s current state of affairs and the root cause of the decline of the Persian civilization. In Voltairean fashion he ridiculed the idea of divine inspiration, the tales in the Qur’an, and the force of bigotry and unreason that the Islamic religion and the disastrous Arab conquest of Iran had unleashed on his countrymen. Like Kermani, he also lamented the loss of the great civilization of pre-Islamic Iran. Drawing historical and sociological comparisons with his own time, he chastised Islam for its antirational and unenlightened principals, including the ignorance, arrogance, and superstitions of the religious authorities and for their condoning of slavery, torture, and the mistreatment of women. With lesser intensity he also held the Qajar state responsible for corruption and mismanagement, and he attacked the undeserved privileges of the elite.

Yet in his discourse of decline, Akhundzadeh, who was a great admirer of Russian high culture, barely ever held the European powers accountable for their part. For him, as for Malkom and most other reformers of the nineteenth century, the major sources of evil were domestic rather than geopolitical. European imperial rivalry barely drew his attention, and he had little to say about colonial ambitions all over the globe. One can almost read between the lines a cold reality that echoed the message of the old Persian “mirror” literature: might is right. If Iran was disempowered and subdued by the West, it was not the West’s fault; instead, Iranians, and Muslims in general, had failed to cast aside their threadbare cultural and religious values and embrace Western civilization. Movements of indigenous reform within Shi‘ism, too, were denounced by Akhundzadeh. Although he condemned the persecution of the Babis, still fresh in his mind, as barbaric, he treated the message of the Babis and the Shaykhis as merely a reiteration of Shi‘i superstitions and yet another obstacle to the march toward civilization.

Like Akhundzadeh, the Qajar prince Jalal al-Din Mirza, another ardent nationalist with whom Akhundzadeh corresponded, viewed the Arab conquest of Iran, and its cultural and political legacy, as a historical catastrophe that pummeled the superior Iranian civilization under its hoof. Jalal al-Din Mirza, the former honorary head of Malkom’s Faramush-khaneh, had produced a rudimentary history textbook, presumably for elementary teaching in the Dar al-Fonun. The Nameh-ye Khosravan (Book of the kings), though mostly a facile list of Iranian dynasties, was written in “pure Persian,” in a simple style and devoid of Perso-Arabic words. Illustrated with imagined portraits of the Persian mythological and Sasanian kings, his was a conscious effort to narrate Iranian history from its legendary origins to the Islamic period. To demonstrate continuity in the Iranian past, there was no significant reference to Islam or the Arab conquest, which, like the Mongol conquests, was portrayed as a dark aberration.

Themes of civilization and reform, the need for constitutional recourse, the heritage of the ancient past versus decline in the present, and the critique of conservatives’ obstacles to modernity all laid the foundations of the constitutional discourse. They simply had been woken from their dormancy when the economic crisis at the turn of the twentieth century needed a language of protest.


The assassination of Naser al-Din Shah put an end to Iran’s political isolation, to which it was subjected by the canny monarch. The accession of the new ruler, Mozaffar al-Din Shah, almost inadvertently broadened Iran’s cultural horizons (see chart 2 in chapter 4). He possessed neither his father’s panache nor his political skills to pull strings at the court and the divan, or to play the competing European powers off one another to his own advantage. He was a man of gentle disposition, with an earnest desire to open up the country to social and educational reforms. His naïveté aside, he tried to break away from the web of Machiavellian politics of earlier years. Yet to maintain some continuity, he briefly reinstated his father’s chief minister, ‘Ali Asghar Khan Amin al-Soltan, who was given the additional title of Atabak, or “guardian tutor,” even though the new shah was well into his fifties. Atabak, the sole chief minster of the Naseri period to escape elimination at the hand of his former royal master, had orchestrated a bloodless transfer of power. Yet he proved helpless in the face of mounting economic pressures, the intrigues of the greedy inner court circle that came with the new shah from Tabriz, and rising popular discontent. His weapon of realpolitik was no match for the new challenges that loomed large after Naser al-Din’s death, and he was dismissed later in 1896.

The new premier, ‘Ali Khan Amin al-Dowleh, who had long been hailed as a champion of reforms, did not last in office for more than a year either. His program of fiscal, administrative, and educational reforms was the closest a Qajar statesman could come to the lofty ideals contemplated by people like Malkom Khan. Yet Amin al-Dowleh’s dream of reconstructing what he dubbed “ruined Iran” (Iran-e viran) ran counter to the three-headed dragon of foreign interests, court intrigue, and economic downturn, not to mention clerical conservatism. The budding modern schools, inspired mostly by the Ottoman Roshdiyeh system, were the test case. Advocated by a dissident educator of the Babi leaning, Mirza Hasan Tabrizi (better known as Roshdiyeh), who had spent years in Beirut and Istanbul, the new schools soon were to meet the clergy’s open antagonism. Such mojtaheds as Shaykh Mohammad Taqi Najafi, better known as Aqa Najafi, the powerful jurist of Isfahan, were at the forefront of opposition. The teaching of European languages in particular was branded as mimicking the ways of the infidels. Modern sciences, geography, and even a new classroom arrangement, with chairs, desks, and chalkboards, did not fare any better. Droves of madrasa students under the Najafi’s thumb ransacked elementary schools and drove teachers out, even forcing them into exile. Even Amin al-Dowleh’s largesse paid to the clerical authorities, a courteous bribe to keep them on his side, did not fully work.

Severe financial pressures on the economy, aggravated by sharp fluctuations in the international currency market, further dimmed Amin al-Dowleh’s chances. The secondary impact of the Panic of 1893, the first major US economic depression, which had global consequences by contributing to the collapse in the price of silver worldwide, had a serious impact on the Iranian silver-based currency. Between 1892 and 1893 the value of the Iranian tuman dropped 28 percent, a staggering fall by any standard. Moreover, the predominance of modern banking and international capital, though less tangible in Iran than in Egypt or the Ottoman Empire, created new obligations for the state and the business community. Yet access to international finance lured the Iranian state to borrow hefty loans in order to pay for court expenditures, the shah’s two royal tours to Europe between 1900 and 1905 in the extravagant style of his father, the expanding bureaucracy, and government-funded projects. The state had to borrow either directly from European powers or from foreign-owned banks, often by farming out the revenue of much of the country’s custom houses as collateral, a practice that temporarily helped the cash-starved government coffers.

Earlier in 1892, under Naser al-Din Shah, the income from Iranian customs was assigned to the Imperial Bank of Persia to service a loan of £500,000 (US$2,500,000) that was secured to pay off the indemnity for the repeal of the tobacco concession to the Regie company. After much back and forth, Amin al-Dowleh had managed to negotiate a new loan from the Imperial Bank in exchange for the provincial tax receipts. The terms of this loan further obligated the government to ransom its meager resources over the long term. As expected, much of the loan was squandered on state bureaucracy and the shah’s European tours. By 1898 Amin al-Dowleh’s reformist agenda had effectively reached a dead end. He was left with no choice but to resign and retire to his estate in Gilan province, where in 1904 he died a disillusioned man. In a broader context Amin al-Dowleh’s dismissal marked the end of ministerial reforms from above, which at least since the middle of the nineteenth century had preoccupied such statesmen as Amir Kabir and Moshir al-Dowleh. The alternative, a movement of dissent from below, which was long in gestation, soon evolved into a popular revolution.

Upon Amin al-Dowleh’s dismissal, the shah and his courtiers reverted back to the old ways by calling on Amin al-Soltan to return to office, primarily to secure yet another loan, this time from Russia. The nearly bankrupt Iranian treasury secured a loan of £2,400,000 ($12,000,000) from the Russian Mortgage Bank of Persia to pay off previous British loans, but at the heavy price of farming out nearly all the remaining Iranian customs revenue. A team of Belgian officials who initially had been employed to supervise the administration of Iranian customs gravitated toward the Russian authorities. Although they introduced new regulations, revised practices, and increased state revenue through the imposition of stricter tariffs, they were more loyal to the Russian creditors than to the Iranian government. The Iranian merchant community was already resentful of the ad valorum tax imposed on Iranians at a higher rate than the tariffs for European trading houses, a disadvantage rooted in the Torkamanchay commercial treaty. The doubling of customs duties under the Belgian administration only generated further discontent, but higher customs duties were only part of the problem. The greater part was a shift in trade patterns. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Iran’s foreign imports, mostly commodities such as tea and sugar as well as manufactured goods including cotton and woolen fabrics, increased substantially.

By 1900 Iran’s population had reached ten million—twice the size of the population a century earlier—and nearly 25 percent lived in cities. In the first decade of the twentieth century cotton fabrics, sugar, and tea constituted 61 percent of Iran’s total imports. Sugar from Russia, France, and Austria amounted to 26 percent of all imports, with a value of $6,250,000. In the mid-1890s Iran’s estimated volume of foreign trade stood at $25 million, while total state revenue for the same period was no more than $12,500,000. The increase in the volume of imports was in contrast to a steady drop in the value of exports. Compared to the middle of the nineteenth century, by 1910 the value of Iran’s three traditional export commodities—silk, opium, and cotton fabrics—had dropped in proportion to total trade by a massive 74 percent. The exports of raw cotton and carpets, however, had increased in value, but only by 26 percent. By 1910 Iran exported about $20 million and imported $25 million annually, causing a cumulative 20 percent deficit in the balance of its foreign trade. This imbalance contributed to a steady fall in the value of Iranian currency. Between 1875 and 1900 the tuman depreciated 100 percent against the British pound, which triggered a rise in the price of imported goods in the domestic market and more vulnerability to international fluctuations.


By 1905, an increasing number of clandestine publications and makeshift posters on the gates of mosques and the walls of government buildings held the shah and his government responsible for a deteriorating economy, rising prices, and mistreatment of the people of Iran. In response, the government of the Qajar prince ‘Ayn al-Dowleh, who came to power to restore order and stabilize prices, resorted to draconian measures. As a symbolic gesture, the governor of Tehran ordered the arrest and bastinado of four merchants on the charge of cornering the sugar market and hiking prices. The public humiliation of reputable merchants had the adverse effect of bringing crowds to the Friday Mosque in sympathy with the leaders of the bazaar.

Yet there was still visible change from the time of the Tobacco Protest. The voices of dissent were more articulate in their critique of the state and, to a limited extent, in their vision for change. Already in 1900, Jamal al-Din Isfahani had published a tract in Shiraz titled Libas al-Taqwa (An attire of virtue), calling on the Iranian public to wear domestic clothing and avoid imported European fabrics. He pleaded with Iranian merchants to join forces against European competition by consolidating their capital in commercial companies and urged them to manufacture fabrics domestically. Engaging in such activities, rather than entering into war with guns and rifles, was the true jihad and citizens’ patriotic duty. Earlier Jamal al-Din, in collaboration with his Babi associates in Isfahan, had organized the Progress Society (Anjoman-i Tarraqi), one of the earliest prerevolutionary secret circles. The society was instrumental in persuading Isfahani merchants to establish a public company, known as the Islamic Company (Sherekat-e Eslamiyeh), to issue stocks, and to raise the necessary resources to set up mills and manufacture clothing for domestic consumption. Creation of commercial companies (known as kompani and later sherekat) with shareholders was a novel concept that was accepted only gradually at the turn of the twentieth century. Traditionally Islamic law recognized only individuals, not shared entities, as legitimate legal personalities. The formation of new companies and the higher volume of investment in them no doubt added to merchants’ economic power, but it also exposed more of them to the vagaries of the market, commitment to larger loans from modern banks, and vacillations in international trade. In due course this budding commercial bourgeoisie placed new demands on the state and contributed to the growing public discontent.

Later, Jamal al-Din directed his criticism toward both the Qajar elite and the clerical establishments, whom he held to be exploitative, corrupt, and tyrannical masters of the country. In 1903 he and Nasrollah Beheshti, better known as Malek al-Motekallemin, another crypto-Babi cleric in the Isfahan circle and later a celebrated preacher of the Constitutional Revolution, anonymously published the tract Roya-ye Sadeqeh (A truthful dream), a satirical reproof of the mojtaheds of Isfahan, especially Aqa Najafi, as well as the powerful prince-governor of Isfahan, Zell al-Soltan. Here, the mojtaheds of the city were depicted as a bunch of greedy, arrogant, and poorly trained mullahs who swindled people’s land and property to accumulate enormous wealth for themselves and their families, and who accepted bribes and favors from the rich and the powerful to issue partial, even conflicting, rulings. He accused them of collaborating with the oppressive and violent government to squash the weak and suppress alternative voices by wielding their weapon of takfir (excommunication) to kill, plunder, and appropriate property.

The self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent mojtaheds of Isfahan, the tract claimed, were hoarding grain in their silos, hiking prices, and committing racketeering—all the while starving people were dying in the streets. It further characterized the mojtaheds as reactionaries and accused them of opposing any social change as non-Islamic, including modern education, the learning of foreign languages, and contact with non-Shi‘is, let alone with non-Muslims, whom they considered ritually unclean. All reforms that potentially affected the individual or communal privileges of the clergy, the authors declared, were branded by these pseudoscholars as evil, and they called for their punishment. The clergy were blamed for their demagogic grip on their ignorant following, whom the mojtaheds exhorted to zealotry and violence. Throngs of seminarians (talabeh) and urban brigands (lutis) served as their vigilantes.

Writing in the familiar genre of the dream narrative, Jamal al-Din employed a theatrical dialogue to scandalize the mojtaheds’ deceit and hypocrisy. Even on the Day of Judgment, which is the stage on which Jamal al-Din’s narrative is played out, Najafi employs his crafty rhetorical skills, all in colloquial Isfahani accent, to bargain with God his own salvation during the Final Reckoning. Such lampooning of the clergy was not entirely new in Persian literature, yet here, for the first time, the semiclandestine publication brought criticism out into the open and made it available to a wider public in poignant and accessible language. Though the print run of the earliest edition of Roya-ye Sadeqeh was no more than mere eighty copies, it had an impact on the Iranian audience.

In their later sermons Jamal al-Din and his fellow preachers were more respectful of the “good” mojtaheds. They praised the two progressive clerical leaders of the Constitutional Revolution, Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i and Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, for upholding the nation, protecting the interests of the motherland, and defending the constitution. Instead, the thrust of Jamal al-Din Isfahani’s later criticism, at the outset of the revolution, was shifted toward the state and the conservative Qajar elite and their allies. From 1907 until his murder after the coup of 1908, a newspaper named after him, al-Jamal, published his sermons in Tehran to be distributed to a wider audience throughout the country. This was a clear example of how the press and mass communication transformed clandestine dissent into a revolutionary discourse.

The most progressive preachers, journalists, and activists shared their criticism of the conservative Qajar aristocracy and the high clergy, though seldom by name, favoring instead the pro-constitutional and the enlightened members of the state elite. Earlier critics like Malkom, Afghani, and Kermani, and the moderate Yusef Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh, considered such a course a tactical necessity. The latter was the author of the critical tract Yak Kalameh (A single word), among the earliest in this genre published in 1871. It advocated the constitution as the remedy to the country’s ailments. Aiming to reconcile the preamble to the French constitution with Islamic principles, Mostashar al-Dowleh offered a very liberal reading of Islamic theology and law in defense of the rule of law, human and civil rights, and limits on the state’s power. His comparative approach found little following at the time, but no doubt it later influenced the framers of the Iranian Constitution. Mostashar al-Dowleh’s facility pairing articles of the French constitution with Qur’anic verses and the Islamic hadith may not have always met the jurists’ seal of approval, but is was sufficient to later persuade the Iranian constitutionalists, many of them laymen, not to leave the task of interpreting shari‘a entirely to the jurists.

By the time of the Constitutional Revolution a trend within the Iranian opposition indeed articulated an Islamic discourse similar to that of Mostashar al-Dowleh. Preachers and activists, some with a latent Babi-Azali affiliation, were ready to offer their support to moderate mojtaheds such as Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i (1842–1920) and Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani (1840–1910) as a realistic way to rock the weakling Qajar state. The shift within the Babi-Azali camp, which had become radical since the 1880s after Yahya Sobh-e Azal endorsed call for an anti-Qajar revolt, allowed for the concealment of past Babi affinities—an act of “disguise” (taqiyyeh) in a moment of danger that is fully endorsed by the Shi‘i legal tradition and, by implication, by the Babi-Azalis. Fifty years of persecution at the hands of the ulama and the state convinced them that a dual challenge to the Qajar state and the Shi‘i establishment was untenable. They were, however, receptive to the notions of democracy, representation, and even republicanism, which they felt were in harmony with the essence of the Babi beliefs. And they were eager to share their invigorated political dissent with sympathetic Shi‘i authorities.

In contrast, the Baha’is, who accounted for the majority of those stigmatized under the general rubric of the Babi heresy, remained largely uninvolved and often resolved to disclose their religious identity, a conviction that resulted in tragic bouts of severe persecution. The sporadic mob brutalities committed against the Baha’is in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were frequently provoked by ambitious mojtaheds and carried out by their followers. The growth of these anti-Baha’i campaigns may be attributed to the mojtaheds’ losing ground to more liberal voices outside and within the religious community. They viewed conversion to the new faith, an avenue to religious modernity for many laypeople and for members of the clerical class critical of the Shi‘i establishment, with great anxiety. The atrocities were often condoned by the Qajar government and its local agents, who were either helpless to stop them or perhaps more often saw a chance to enhance their public image as disseminators of heresy and as upholders of the true Islamic faith.

Such hysteria took place in the city of Yazd in 1902–1903, when a frantic mob led by lutis and equipped with fatwas of the local mojtaheds from over a period of months attacked and looted Baha’i households and businesses, and arrested and executed as many as a hundred Baha’is. These acts were committed in public and in the most gruesome fashion. The victims, mostly artisans and small-scale tradesmen, but also a few affluent merchants, paid not only with their lives but also with the lives of their wives and children. Some Baha’i women were forced to convert back to Islam and were duly married off to their Muslim tormenters. Those who resisted were raped and chased out of the city. Children were enslaved or abandoned, and helpless families died of thirst and starvation on remote back roads hundreds of miles from their homes. Mohammad ‘Ali Jamalzadeh (1892–1997), a renowned Iranian writer of the twentieth century and son of the aforementioned Sayyed Jamal al-Din Isfahani, recalled a haunting sight of the Baha’i refugees from Yazd dying of hunger at the outskirts of a village near Kashan. Together with his mother, the young Jamalzadeh was himself fleeing a vicious anti-Babi campaign in Isfahan.

The ferocity of the Yazd persecution, one of several at the time, only confirmed the Babi-Azali incentive for taqiyyeh, if for no other reason than security. As a result of concealing their identity, many Azalis inevitably were assimilated into the majority Muslim population at the expense of the gradual fading away of their Babi identity. Yet assimilation in many cases did not soften their anti-Qajar agenda. As the popular constitutional movement gradually gained momentum, Babi sympathizers among the lower clerical ranks gravitated toward political activism, which was wrapped safely in the guise of Islamic conformity.


The dissidents in exile had only an indirect impact on the course of the constitutional movement, and this was mostly through domestic activists. Enjoying the blessing of two high-ranking mojtaheds, Behbahani and Tabataba’i, the activists among middle- and lower-ranking mullahs made more demands on the state. This helped turn an initially limited protest movement with mundane aims into a national outcry for a constitution, popular representation, and civil rights. These ideas, adopted by a handful of advocates from such sources as Malkom Khan’s Qanun and the fictional travelogue of Ibrahim Beg by Maragheh’i, were communicated to high-ranking clerical leaders and then passed down to the general public. Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i’s support for constitutionalism, rooted in his admirably liberal predilections, was atypical among the jurists of the period. His ally, Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, however, seemed to have been driven as much by ambitions of leadership and alleged monetary concerns as by aspirations for democracy. Both leaders belonged to families who had enjoyed social distinction for more than a century. At the outset they relied heavily on their better-informed subordinates for their knowledge of such notions as civil rights, legislation, and national sovereignty, but their courage and prestige made them enormously popular with the public. Tabataba’i in particular was endowed with a genuine urge to establish a pluralistic society based on rule of law and individual freedoms, concepts that he himself acknowledged as inconsistent with the best interests of the mojtahed class.

The early absence of a coherent political agenda among the protesters is evident, for instance, in the set of demands set forth in December 1905 during the bast (sanctuary) that was organized in response to the government’s treatment of sugar merchants. The most significant demand was a call to establish a “house of justice” (‘adalat-khaneh), which would be compatible with shari‘a and would protect subjects from the state’s arbitrary measures, especially in collecting taxes. Yet the list of demands also included such seemingly mundane items as dismissal of a notorious carriage driver who monopolized the route between Tehran and the nearby shrine of Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim, and whose uncouth conduct generated many complaints from the pilgrims. No mention, however, was made of the qanun (law or constitution), division of powers, or creation of a legislative assembly. Even the concept of the “house of justice” was not particularly favored by many, for it implied a potential departure from the decentralized judicial courts that the ulama had long cherished. The notion of the house of justice, which eventually transformed into a call for a national assembly, had its roots in the writings of the Bab and the messianic aspiration to establish a house of justice (bayt al-‘adl) under the Imam of the Age.

That the beginning of the constitutional movement in AH 1323/1905 CE was only six years before the millennial anniversary of the “Greater Occultation” (ghaybat-e kobra) of the Hidden Imam, who was presumed to have gone into Occultation in AH 329/941 CE, added to the messianic spirit of the moment and to anticipation of the “return” of the Mahdi. This was evident in many statements, names of a number of newspapers, and the sermons of the pro-constitutional preachers. In effect, the “awakening” (bidari) of the people, often referred to in the literature of the period, and their demand for the establishment of a just order, implied some form of modernization, or more specifically, democratization, of a messianic paradigm and its utopian ideals that were indigenous to the Iranian environment.

Dispensing justice (‘adl and ‘adalat) in the world to redress wrongs and remove tyranny, one of the precepts of Shi‘i Islam with a millenarian connotation, was soon adopted by a new generation of European-educated state elites and complemented by European notions of the rule of law and limits on the despotic power of the state. Domesticating these Western notions in the Shi‘i political space enabled the growth and early success of the constitutional movement. Yet from the start, it also injected into the process inherent ambiguity, even some resistance to divulging the true secular agenda of the constitutionalists. By somewhat naively trying to dress many articles of the emerging constitution in Islamic garb—not dissimilar to Mostashar al-Dowleh’s Yak Kalameh—the constitutional activists hoped to appease the conservative and escape labels of heresy and religious innovation. As such, they introduced a troubling feature to the Iranian experience of democracy, one that would remain inherent for decades, if not for a whole century thereafter.

The Joseph Naus affair offered a pretext for expressing indignation at and discontent with foreign presence. As the Belgian director of Iranian customs under Mozaffar al-Din Shah, since 1897, Naus had restructured Iranian customs and raised state revenue through higher tariffs and the rigorous collection of duties. Yet public discontent with his regime was expressed in Islamic ethical terms. He had appeared at a European costume ball in Tehran in Persian traditional attire, remotely resembling that of the ulama. The widely distributed photograph of him in costume, smoking the Persian water pipe, became a source of outrage, and his dismissal one of the demands of the protesters in Qom.

The protest was fueled, and possibly financed, by Iranian merchants resentful of Naus’s discriminatory practices, which favored Russian firms. His partiality to Russia was reciprocated by Russia’s extending near-protégé status to Belgians and threatening the Iranian government with retaliation for any action taken against Naus’s practices or against his amassing of personal wealth. Yet even after his departure in May 1907, the outcome of public protest, the Belgians’ grip on customs remained firm.

In July 1906, a renewed call for the government to convene a “shari‘a-bound assembly (majles) of the house of justice” regained momentum. In support of the Majles, the restive Tehran population gathered in Tupkhaneh Square (Maydan-e Tupkhaneh), adjacent to the citadel complex, and staged one of the earliest public demonstrations that had occurred outside the mosque or the shrine setting. The clampdown on demonstrators by government troops resulted in the death of a young religious student, offering a pretext to a group of pro-constitutionalist ulama headed by Tabataba’i to leave the capital and reside in Qom. The ulama’s departure in protest was always treated with anxiety by the Qajar government, especially in times of crisis. Simultaneously, the merchants of the Tehran bazaar rallied behind Behbahani (who had ties with the British legation in Tehran), playing a crucial role in the burgeoning protest movement. Fearing government retaliation, the Tehran merchants managed to organize a vast sanctuary (bast) in support of the Qom protesters in the safety of the British legation in Tehran.

Taking sanctuary in the grounds of a European power was an unprecedented, even sacrilegious, move. More so because it was in the British legation that the protestors openly demanded for the first time the establishment of a constitutional (mashruteh) order. The bast attracted a crowd from all walks of life, particularly from the bazaar guilds, small merchants, and artisans. Altogether there were about five hundred tents representing trades and professions, as humble as cobblers, porcelain menders, and fresh walnut vendors. On the final day as many as fourteen thousand individuals participated (fig. 6.2). The atmosphere was joyous but orderly, and the mood congenial and optimistic. The chief merchants of the bazaar sustained the cost of the tents and food for the public for the full two weeks of the bast. Massive copper cauldrons were brought from the mosques and the takkiyehs and placed on makeshift hearths in a common kitchen to prepare huge quantities of rice, stew, and Persian ash, which were delivered on trays to the tents, whose banners identified guilds and other organizations. There were also frequent sermons and speeches highlighting the evils of tyranny and the benefits of a constitution (fig. 6.3).

Figure 6.2. Members of the clothiers guild in the July 1906 sanctuary (bast) in the British legation in Tehran.

Contemporary postcard published in Tehran, c. 1910. Author’s collection.

The protest was novel, above all, because of the central role of the merchants. They took the lead from constitutional activists in persuading the ranking mojtaheds to comply with the idea of the constitution. Even more than the Tobacco Protest fifteen years earlier, the merchant class was the engine behind the protesters and the voicing of their grievances. Moreover, the bast enjoyed the tacit support of some middle-ranking British diplomats in Tehran. Facing the protesters’ enthusiasm and their growing numbers, British diplomats could do little but allow the bast to proceed unhindered. The British blessing, momentary though it was, hinted toward a shift in the British Foreign Office’s policy in Iran under Sir Edward Gray—a subtle response to Russia’s increasing commercial and political influence in Iran and to the Qajar court’s tilt toward its northern neighbor. As far as the constitutionalists were concerned, the bast in the legation offered not only immunity against the government and the blessing of a European power, but also a secular space, one outside the mosque and religious sanctuaries. The relative freedom in the new space allowed Western-educated intellectuals and graduates of the Dar al-Fonun to help refashion the idea of the “house of justice” into a demand for a European-style constitution.

Figure 6.3. Feeding protesters who sought sanctuary in the British legation in Tehran in July 1906. Haji Mohammad Taqi Bonakdar (standing at left center), who offered his services, was a textile wholesaler in the Tehran bazaar.

Contemporary postcard. Author’s collection.

The coinage mashruteh in fact meant “conditional,” denoting the setting of conditions on the power of the sovereign. Borrowed from the neighboring Ottoman Empire’s first constitutional regime of 1876, which was aborted in 1878 by Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid, meshrutiyet (as it pronounced in Ottoman Turkish) represented for the Iranians more than just the new conditional system; it represented the entire constitutional experience and political order it entailed. The term mashruteh, moreover, implies a familiar chapter on “conditions” (shorut) in Islamic law, which in turn gave it a certain Islamic acceptability and in the eyes of the ulama and the public put it at a safe distance from such alien notions as constitution and constitutionalism.

Public debate and publications further gave the term mashruteh and associated buzzwords a greater currency. The growing telegraphic communications throughout Iran’s major cities made it possible for protesters in the capital to transmit the constitutional message of the movement and to coordinate their efforts with cohorts in Tabriz, the true center of radical activism, and elsewhere. Thus, the movement was no longer seen as a quarrel between the ulama and the Qajar state; it had acquired a nationwide constituency that was increasingly becoming conscious of its message and its national identity. “Long live Iran!”—a rallying cry of the constitutionalists from the earliest days—touched on such patriotic sentiments.

Figure 6.4. Protesters in Shiraz taking sanctuary in the telegraph house. Communicating with the capital via telegraph was a common feature of the constitutional era. Many demands and petitions flooded the young Majles.

By Hasan ‘Akkas-bashi, c. 1908. M. Sane‘ Paydayesh-e ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 100.

As has often been noted, only a small number of the elite understood the idea of the constitution and the liberal values associated with it. Yet the Iranian public was quick to employ the term to air its resentment of their destitution, material decline, and the insecurities they faced in everyday life. For these ills, the people held the ruling establishment responsible. If notions of constitutional rights and democratic representation were new to them, poverty, decline, and state arbitrary rule were familiar. It is rather naive to blame the ordinary people, as critics of the Constitutional Revolution often have, for their unfamiliarity with the lofty liberal ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, or John Stuart Mill. It is even more condescending to expect that all revolutions would have a standard interpretation of modernity.

The sanctuary in Qom, protests in Tehran, and mediation between the mashruteh seekers and the royal court by moderate statesmen obligated the weary Qajar shah and his court officials to dismiss the unpopular premier, ‘Ayn al-Dowleh, whose draconian measures triggered the earliest protests. He was the third member of the Qajar tribe in a century to serve as premier and stir a crisis. Later, in 1908, his part in quashing the revolutionary resistance in Tabriz further blackened his image as a staunch reactionary. Shortly thereafter, the protesting ulama who had taken refuge in Qom returned after the shah only implicitly accepted their demands. Yet on August 10, 1906, under increased public pressure, he could see no other way but to issue a rescript that came to be known as the Constitutional Decree (Farman-e Mashrutiyat). Addressed to the new premier, Nasrollah Khan Moshir al-Dowleh, the receipt called for the establishment of a “national consultative assembly [majles-e showra-ye melli] . . . to carry out the requisite deliberations and investigations on all necessary subjects connected with important affairs of the state and empire and the public interests; and shall render the necessary help and assistance to our cabinet and ministers in such reforms as are designed to promote the happiness and wellbeing of Iran.”1

Although ironically the word mashruteh was carefully avoided in the rescript, the text did speak, albeit vaguely, of “legislative reforms” and further endorsed that the Majles, the first with any representation beyond the elite, be elected from among seven classes: the princes of the Qajar family, the ulama, the notables (a‘yan), the nobles (ashraf), the landowners, the merchants, and the guilds. The Electoral Law Committee appointed to draw up election bylaws consisted of mostly young Western-educated bureaucrats. Among them were Mahdi-Qoli Hedayat and Hasan Moshir al-Molk (later Moshir al-Dowleh Pirniya), liberal moderates with family histories of divan service over several generations. The latter was a graduate of the Russian military academy and a student of law who had founded the School of Diplomacy (Madreseh-e Siyasi) in Tehran in 1899. Perhaps inspired by the model of the Estates-General during the French Revolution, the committee opted for a representational system that surprisingly gave the greatest number of “deputies” (vakils) to the guilds and the merchants. Of the 168 deputies, Tehran was designated sixty seats, four of which were to go to the Qajar princes and nobles, four to the ulama and students (tollab), ten to the khans and landowners, ten to merchants, and one each to the thirty-two guilds. Azarbaijan and Fars were to receive twelve seats each, and the remaining ten provinces, eighty-two seats. By September the electoral law was ratified and the designated deputies began to convene in the capital (pl. 6.1).

The inauguration of the Majles in October 1906 aimed to frame the “Fundamental Law” (qanun-e asasi). Remarkably, the issuance of the Constitutional Decree and the convening of the Majles closely followed developments during the 1905 Russian Revolution and the establishment of the short-lived Duma in April 1906. Adopting the term “Fundamental Law” also seems to have been inspired by the Fundamental Laws issued by Tsar Nicholas II, according to which the Duma was granted limited legislative powers but only with the ultimate endorsement of the tsar, who called himself the “supreme autocrat.” Similar tension between the Majles and the monarch was soon to emerge with the Iranian Constitutional Revolution.

The members of the Electoral Law Committee adopted the term Fundamental Law in place of the French constitution so as to avoid conservatives’ accusations that they were adopting an alien institution contrary to Islamic shari‘a and the tradition of monarchy in Iran. Yet the secularizing agenda of the constitutionalists, boosted by dissident preachers and the burgeoning liberal press outside the Majles, was clear enough not to be missed by opponents, even though a handful of radical deputies led by likes of Hasan Taqizadeh, the celebrated deputy from Tabriz, did their best to camouflage their antiroyalist and anticlerical views. Fearing their opponents in the court and among conservative ulama, the Majles deputies soon realized that to avoid the fate of the Russian Duma—which was dissolved in July 1906 by order of the tsar—they had only a brief window of opportunity. The Majles thus hastily drew up a document to be signed by the shah on December 30, 1906, on his deathbed. The Fundamental Law recognized the separation of three powers—with the Majles as the legislative body—far more than earlier demands for it to have a mere judicial function, and with the shah as the head of the executive. The news of the revolution stirred some interest not only nationally but in the European press as well (pl. 6.2). The shah died of kidney failure on January 3, 1907, and was immediately succeeded on the throne by his son, Mohammad ‘Ali Shah (r. 1907–1909), a man of decidedly different temperament and political orientation from his father.


It was remarkable enough that Iran had convened a parliament against all the odds. It was even more significant that the Majles not only framed a constitution but soon after, in October 1907, ratified a substantial document, the Supplement to the Fundamental Law. The latter document guaranteed basic liberties and laid the foundation for a constitutional system. This was achieved in an environment of growing tension with the court of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah and open hostility from the anticonstitutional clerical camp under Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri (1843–1909), who was allied with conservatives at the court.

Despite his early support for the constitutional movement, Nuri soon parted ways, posing a potent challenge to the Majles and the cause of constitutionalism. He coined the term mashru‘eh, obviously mimicking mashruteh, to imply that the shar’ (i.e., shari‘a), and not the shart (condition), ought to be the foundation of the new constitutional order. Though a prominent Usuli jurist, he did not articulate the meaning of mashru‘eh beyond generalities. Perhaps aware of the past Shi‘i jurists’ aversion to engaging in issues of political governance (which in the absence of the Imam of the Age considered any other form of worldly government to be categorically oppressive), Nuri remained in essence loyal to the theory of state-religion dual authority. Yet facing the reality of a modern legislature, he strove to find a role for the jurists, with himself at the helm. Not merely a judicial one but a role to enforce the shari‘a far beyond its accepted limits. He viewed the nascent Majles and its constitution as no more than a conspiracy hatched by heretics, Babis, and atheists, and he called on his clerical cohorts to oppose them. In his “rescripts” (lawayeh), periodically published from Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim, where he had taken sanctuary, he attacked as non-Islamic such precepts as freedom of speech and equality before the law. Once the appeasing gestures by the Majles, including the inclusion in the constitution of a five-member mojtahed supervisory committee, appeared to be mere lip service to the ulama, Nuri quietly abandoned the idea of the mashur’eh and became a royalist supporting Mohammad ‘Ali Shah.

Beyond Nuri and his supporters, the infant constitutional regime had to face the consequences of a new alliance between its European neighbors. In August 1907, Russia and Britain concluded an agreement that recognized two zones of influence for the powers in northern and southern Iran, with the middle region declared neutral. This was the first time such an agreement had replaced the old power rivalries. The agreement reaffirmed the powers’ traditional guarantees for the Qajar throne without acknowledging the Majles or the new constitutional process. This generated new anxieties and, as it turned out, contributed to the precarious nature of the emerging order and, a year later, to the coup of June 1908 that destroyed the Majles and suspended the constitution. The events that unfolded then gave the Iranians little comfort in the European powers’ assurances that they would respect Iran’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The first Majles was composed of deputies with little legislative experience and misperceptions about how the Majles—and indeed the entire constitutional system—was to function. Among the deputies, those of the Azarbaijan contingent were the most influential members. From the outset a few deputies, most significantly, Hasan Taqizadeh (1878–1970), a young charismatic orator from Tabriz with a radical agenda, came to dominate the debates. Born in Nakhijevan, the southern autonomous region in today’s Republic of Azerbaijan near the Iranian border) to a family of Shi‘i local clergy, Taqizadeh started as a seminarian in Tabriz but, soon becoming critical of traditional madrasa schooling, turned toward modern sciences and Western political thought. With the help of his cohorts he established a small lending library in Tabriz, a means of self-education also aimed to enlighten his fellow citizens. He later left for Beirut and Cairo, where, still in clerical attire, he was further exposed to current trends of secular thought and nationalism. He also perfected his Arabic and learned some English and French. He returned to Tabriz at the beginning of the constitutional era and was designated a deputy from Azarbaijan.

The Azarbaijan contingent was in part backed by the semi-clandestine socialist circle in Tabriz and by the Iranian émigré community in the Caucasus. Many were dislocated peasants from Iranian Azarbaijan, but there were also enthusiastic Iranian merchants and wealthy industrialists who offered their moral and financial support. Other deputies from the provinces, including Isfahan, Kerman, Fars, and Gilan, added to the Majles’ credibility as the first nationwide legislative body created by the will of the people. The two constitutionalist mojtaheds, referred to as the “two glowing starts” (nurayn-e nayyerain), attended the Majles session not only as representatives of the ulama class but also as surrogates for the so-called recognized religious minorities. Only in the second Majles, after 1909, was a Zoroastrian dignitary elected to represent the long-persecuted followers of Iran’s indigenous religion. The Jewish and Christian communities also appointed representatives, but the Babi Azalis or Baha’is were never elevated beyond the label of “despicable heresy.” Neither were women considered worthy of standing as deputies or even being part of the electorate.

The Supplement to the Fundamental Law was inspired by the French, Belgian, and Bulgarian constitutions but in substance was adopted to the requirements of the Iranian environment and the precepts of Shi‘ism. It reflected contingencies and contradictions inherent in the Iranian system that were hard to overcome. Yet every article of the constitution was genuinely argued and heatedly debated in open sessions and before enthusiastic audiences. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Majles was indeed its openness, even though at times the deputies of the guild and mercantile backgrounds were intimidated by the oratorical skills of such leading figures as Taqizadeh.

The Fundamental Law and the Supplement to the Fundamental Law declared a division of powers into three branches. The shah was acknowledged as the head of the executive, whose divine grace was bestowed on him by the will of the people. This was the first time in the long history of Persian kingship that a document subordinated, albeit partially, the king’s authority to the people’s institutional mandate—an assertion over which a bloody civil war would soon be fought. The constitution also regarded the Majles as the legislative body in charge of making laws but also delegated to it supervisory powers over the affairs of the government including consent in appointing the premier and his ministers as well as the prerogative to dismiss them.

To appease detractors within the ulama camp, the constitution stipulated that all laws (qanun) legislated by the Majles was to remain within the bounds of political order, and thus outside the sphere of the shari‘a. In reality, however, it subverted the accepted universality of the shari‘a in some key provisions. In contrast to Islamic law that discriminated between Muslims and non-Muslims, the constitution recognized equal rights for all citizens. It further secured freedom of the press and publication, and freedom of association, so long as they were not against principles of Islam. Freedom of expression in particular was seen by the opposing ulama not only as a clear breach of restraints that Islam placed on individuals but also as sanctioning the spread of un-Islamic ideas and heresies.

Article 1 of the 1907 Supplement to the Fundamental Law specifically declared Twelver Shi‘i Islam as the official religion of Iran, and article 2 specified:

At no time must any legal enactment of the Sacred National Consultative Assembly [Majles Moqaddas Showra-ye Melli], established by the Imam of the Age and His Majesty the shahanshah of Islam and the whole people of the Iranian nation, be at variance with the sacred principles of Islam or the laws established by His Holiness the Best of Mankind [i.e., Prophet Mohammad].2

This, of course, was not merely a lip service; it reflected the framers’ serious dilemma of how to reconcile the will of “the people of Iranian nation” as a source of the constitution’s legitimacy with the ancient pillars of authority: Shi‘i Islam and Iranian kingship. After much bickering over the language, to appease Nuri and the mashru‘eh opposition who were battering the constitutionalists from their sanctuary near Tehran, the Majles approved, after several drafts, that a committee of five mojtaheds and experts of Islamic law would oversee the compatibility of legislation with preconditions laid out in the shari‘a. Though in reality the committee never convened and was forgotten after 1910, compatibility with the shari‘a remained an issue that would reemerge seven decades later during the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Other articles of the constitution betrayed the same undercurrent of obsequiousness in fear of being labeled “irreligious.” Article 8 of the same document granted all the people of Iran “equal rights” before the law, a milestone for Iran’s political culture. The equal rights were spelled out in the following articles in specific terms, including the safeguarding of lives, properties, homes, and honor from “every kind of interference,” and prohibited arbitrary or extrajudicial arrest, detainment, and punishment all citizens, as well as infringement in their private dwellings and confiscation of their properties. Beyond basic rights to life and property, article 18 declared freedom of “the study of all sciences, arts and crafts,” unless forbidden by the law of Islam, and article 19 demanded that the government establish public schools and supervise public education. More significant, article 20 allowed all publications, “except heretical books and matters hurtful to the perspicuous religion [of Islam],” and exempted them from any censorship. In the same spirit, article 21 sanctioned freedom of “all societies and associations,” provided that they were not “productive to mischief to religion and state, and are not injurious to good order.”

The Majles was also under great pressure to limit the sovereign’s power. The division of powers, a cornerstone of any modern constitution, had to be maneuvered against anticonstitutional Mohammad ‘Ali Shah and his dubious ambitions. The constitution’s crucial article 27, which assigned legislative, judicial, and executive powers to three branches of the government, granted nominal power to the shah. The king’s executive power—known as the laws of ordinance—were to be “carried out by the ministers and state officials in the august name of his Imperial Majesty in such manner as the law defines.” Moreover, article 44 exempted the shah from any political responsibility for the affairs of the state, instead holding the ministers of the state responsible to the legislative branch. Under enormous pressure from the court, however, the framers of the constitution were obliged to assert in article 35 that “the sovereignty is a trust confided as a divine gift by the people to the person of the king.” It is reported that Mohammad ‘Ali Shah only agreed to sign the Supplement to the Fundamental Law in October 1907 after inserting in his own hand the phrase “as a divine gift,” rendering the article obsolete.


Conferring the “divine gift” to the shah in the constitution reflected the constraints and trepidation of the Majles, just as the provision to convene the committee of the mojtaheds to oversee legislation did. However, it would be an error of historical judgment to assume that the Fundamental Law and its Supplement were merely loose translations of European constitutions. The Iranian Constitution was shaped article by article after hours, days, and months of fierce debate in and out of the nascent parliament, and the proceedings of the Majles is witness to the heated exchanges between deputies as well as the sincere optimism with which they engaged in debates. All the more remarkable, this was a document produced by a Majles unaccustomed to the traditions of the Magna Carta, the Long Parliament, the civil and constitutional refinements of John Locke, Montesquieu, and John Stuart Mill and the tradition of legal procedure and secular humanism that had engendered the 1787 Constitution of the United States, the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the 1791 ratification of the American Bill of Rights.

The deputies of the Majles and the people who elected them to office soon realized (as did the English, French, and Americans) that a constitution and constitutionalism did not come easily or cheaply. The mashruteh and implementation of the Fundamental Law resulted in much bloodshed, political conflict, and the chaos of a civil war before being acknowledged as a “revolution” (enqelab). The term in Persian originally denoted a seasonal climatic change or a sudden shift in human medical condition (of the same root as the Arabic verb qalaba, “to turn”). Only in the late nineteenth century, and more clearly during the 1908–1909 civil war, enqelab acquired its modern political meaning and gradually came to replace constitutional “movement” (nahzat) in the revolutionary discourse. However, as early as 1907 the shift in and out of the Majles toward greater radicalization anticipated nothing less than a full-scale revolution.

Between May 1907 and July 1909, the Majles at every turn faced enormous threats to its very survival (see map 5.2). A range of issues contributed to the instability of the nascent constitutional regime. Chief among them were disagreement on limits of the legislative authority, growing tensions with the shah and his court, and a constant barrage of defamatory propaganda from Nuri and advocates of the mashru‘eh. Unrest in the provinces provoked by the court and by the powerful tribal khans and the local ulama, as well as serious skirmishes and sectarian fighting on the Ottoman borders, further challenged the young order. By mid-1907, Azarbaijan was being harassed by the royalist Shahseven tribe in the vicinity of Ardabil, who, provoked by the Qajar shah, pillaged towns and villages in the name of securing the crown. Further to the west, in the Orumiyeh region, Kurdish irregulars backed by Ottoman troops repeatedly crossed the border and attacked Assyrian and Armenian villagers in Iranian territory. In Fars, Isfahan, Zanjan, and Kashan urban unrest, sectarian clashes, and banditry were on the rise. Na’eb Hosain, a former member of the Qajar rural police turned bandit, together with his gang, since the late 1890s organized repeated raids on the city of Kashan and villages in its vicinity stretching as far east as the central Iranian desert. Posing himself as a friend of the poor and the underprivileged, in reality he was no more than a ruthless plunderer and killer of innocent people whose reign of terror lasted for more than two decades. Failure to quash the Na’ebis, as they came to be known, epitomized the weakening of the central government during the revolution and its aftermath.

Under these circumstances, it became painfully evident to the Majles and its radicalized supporters among the revolutionary societies (anjomans) that no peaceful solution was in sight. The return of Amin al-Soltan, the shrewd premier of the Naseri and Mozaffari eras, to the post of prime minister in April 1907 provoked various reactions from the constitutionalists. Some viewed the reinstatement as Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s design to forge an anti-Majles front consisting of the court, the conservative mojtaheds (headed by Nuri), the tribal chiefs, and the patronage of the Russian legation, with which the new premier was reputed to be on excellent terms. Amin al-Soltan’s claim to mediate peace between the Majles and the shah won him few supporters among moderates in the Majles, but it also angered the radicals, especially once it became evident that the he was financing Nuri’s anti-Majles operation in the sanctuary of Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim. His assassination in front of the Majles in August 1907, at the hand of a young devotee affiliated with a socialist revolutionary cell with connections to the Iranian émigré community in the Caucasus, was a shocking development. The act, perpetrated by a small-time moneylender originally from Tabriz, was justified in the eyes of the plotters because of fear of the return to power of the crafty pro-Russian statesman would soon result in the closure of the Majles and destruction of the revolution.

Weeks before Amin al-Soltan’s assassination, the prorevolutionary orators in Tehran had called for the premier’s removal as the opening act of an inevitable revolution—a term with a peculiarly fresh ring to Iranian ears. The person presumed to be behind the clandestine cell was Haydar Khan, later known as ‘Amu-Ughlu but also known as Bombi (bomb maker), an Azarbaijani émigré trained as electrical engineer in Tiflis. He was employed by Tehran municipality to run the capital’s first tiny electrical power plant. A Marxist revolutionary motivated by the Baku oil workers’ labor movement and radicalized by the botched Russian Revolution of 1905, Haydar Khan, a handsome and charismatic man of persuasive character, would come to play a distinct, and arguably destructive, part in Iran’s dissident politics over the following decade.

The assassination of the premier on August 31, 1907, coincided with the signing in St. Petersburg of the 1907 convention recognizing two “zones of influence,” clearly drawn diagonally across Iran’s map. The agreement, part of a larger understanding between the two powers, also included Afghanistan and Tibet. With an ironic ring to its curious wording, the agreement was only a step short of occupation, at least on paper. Although the two powers had the temerity to announce it to the Iranian government a month later, the press abroad and at home had already drawn public attention to its ominous consequences. Most evident was Russia’s free hand to force its wishes on the Iranian government in every way possible, including military intervention, especially in the adjacent provinces of Azarbaijan and Gilan. Even before the conclusion of the agreement, Russia repeatedly threatened to dispatch troops to Tabriz under the pretext of protecting the interests of its citizens and protégés in the face of revolutionary chaos. The agreement only made such threats more real and, as far as the powers were concerned, blatantly legitimate. Iranian constitutionalists were dumbfounded.

Facing Russia’s hostility, Iranian constitutionalists in and out of the Majles hoped for British support. Yet the combined effect of Amin al-Soltan’s assassination and the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian agreement dissuaded Britain from lending its support to the Iranian cause. New geopolitical realities, above all the rise of Imperial Germany, were the chief motive behind the 1907 agreement. One outcome so far as Iran’s domestic politics was concerned was a greater polarization of Iran’s revolutionary politics, which less than a year later led to open confrontation with the Qajar shah and a civil war. The anti-constitutional camp consolidated once influential courtiers joined hands with the mashru‘eh supporters. There was also strong regional support for anti-constitutionalists. The Russian tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1918), alarmed by the revival of the 1905 revolutionary spirit at Russia’s southern borders, threw his moral weight and military support behind the Qajar throne. And so did Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II having been equally terrified of the mounting discontent among his officer corps at the very outset of the Young Turk Revolution. That he dispatched troops to the Iranian frontier to back the marauding Kurdish irregulars who looted and killed Azarbaijani and Assyrian Christian villagers may be viewed as token enmity toward the Iranian constitutionalists.

The constitutionalist camp, though nominally abiding by the Majles, was increasingly disillusioned with its slow course of action and the compromising attitude of its many deputies. The radicals among the deputies and outside the Majles were supported by the revolutionary societies known as anjomans. Members of the anjomans, some of them armed with small weapons, assumed the task of guarding the Majles, but also acted as a pressure group, dictating their wishes to the legislature. Whether former Babis, nationalists, or socialists, the anjomans’ leadership came to play a decisive role in the political process (pl. 6.3). By mid-1908, there were at least seventy anjomans in Tehran alone, with an estimated five thousand armed fighters. Best known among them, Anjoman-e Azarbaijan, acted as a political party and a paramilitary force, and was the political agent for the influential provincial council in Tabriz known as Anjoman Ayalati Azarbaijan.

The mouthpiece of the constitutionalists and their supporting anjomans was the budding press, which had multiplied since 1905. They made explicit demands of the Majles, attacked the mashru‘eh camp and the court, and criticized the shah for not complying with his constitutional duties. By 1908, more than eighteen newspapers were in circulation all over Iran, as well as a vast number of tracts and clandestine posters. The journalists were of varying quality; some, like Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi (1870–1908), an intellectual from a Babi family, created the influential weekly Sur-e Esrafil (Seraphim’s trumpet) and set the tone for liberal constitutional debate with intelligent editorials (fig. 6.5). The columns by a gifted satirist, Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Qazvini, with the pen name Dehkhoda (1879–1956), offered a vivid portrayal of revolutionary politics and current affairs through the eye of a witty Qazvini village headman. Other papers, particularly Habl al-Matin (Strong cord), published in Calcutta since 1893 under the editorship of Jalal al-Din Mo’ayyed al-Islam Kashani (1863–1930) and his daughter Fakhr al-Soltan (and during the constitutional period in Tehran and Rasht) placed Iranian constitutionalism in a broader regional context and amplified its international significance.

The thrust of most newspapers, however, focused on political education and advocacy of secular modernity, invariably tied up with emphasis on Iran’s window of opportunity to liberate itself from the slumber of centuries of ignorance and oppression by authoritarian institutions. The subtext was more drastic; it was as though between the lines they were calling for the removal of the old institutions: the Qajar kingship and the Shi‘i establishment and even a secular republican order. The passage of a press law in early 1908 that allowed for greater freedom of expression in turn brought more direct attacks on the shah and the royalists.

Beyond the press, the anjomans were successful in mobilizing not only the guilds and merchants of the bazaars but also a new class of government bureaucrats and even telegraph, post, and Tehran’s transportation workers. The state employees were willing to go on strike in support of the Majles. Remarkably, the Persian telegraph system, manned primarily by sympathizers of the constitutionalists, created under the government’s nose a semiclandestine communication network. The telegraphic network connected constitutionalists and their anjomans all over the country, thus allowing for the rapid exchange of ideas and decisions, calling on the Majles deputies to act quickly, and admonishing them for compromise and indecision. It reinforced a sense of national accord all over Iran from Tabriz and Rasht to Isfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, and Kermanshah (see map 5.2).

Figure 6.5. Sur-e Esrafil’s logo captures the spirit of the Constitutional Revolution as an apocalyptic moment of national awakening. The Qur’anic verses about the Day of Resurrection, a seraph trumpeting, and the dead rising confirm the association. At left in the background Mount Damavand is erupting. The journal has lunar Islamic as well as solar Sasanian and Gregorian calendar equivalents.

No. 3, page 1 (June 13, 1907). Courtesy of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

The virtual national community created by telegraphy was already in place during the 1891–1892 Tobacco Protest. Thousands of telegrams were exchanged in the relatively short revolutionary years, often instantaneously and with the sense of empowerment that the new technology offered. A huge volume of messages exchanged in all directions: between constitutionalists in the provinces, the ulama in Iran and Iraq, the government and the provincial authorities, the shah and his officers, the foreign representatives and European capitals, the Majles deputies and the anjomans, the leaders of the bazaar, the Caucasian revolutionaries and socialists of Tabriz. Likewise, a vast number of complaints, petitions, and messages of both support and protest were transmitted from the ordinary people in remote towns and villages throughout Iran who had found a new voice through telegraphic communication.

The press and the telegraph, both modern means of communication in the public space, elevated the Majles in the eyes of the people to a sacred institution, as the epithet: “sacred” (moqaddas), attached to the full name of Consultative National Assembly, denoted. The Majles became the embodiment of lofty goals of the constitution, expected, quite unrealistically, to dispense social justice; to ensure peace, prosperity, and security; and to defend the country against foreign intrusions—all goals far beyond the frugal means of the Majles and the competence of most its deputies. Yet despite inexperience and inefficiency, the Majles’ record was still impressive enough to alarm its opponents and ensure continued animosity.

Beyond the drafting of the Fundamental Law and its Supplement, the Majles had tried, with some success, to tackle the urgent overhaul of the state’s frail finances and arcane practices. By 1907, Iran’s total state revenue was about 7,700,000 tumans (about $20,000,000), whereas annual expenditure for that year was projected at 10,700,000 tumans ($27,500,000), a deficit of 37 percent. The foreign debts that had accumulated since the 1890s only added to the burden. By 1909, it amounted to a colossal $30,000,000, with cumulative interest to be serviced by acquiring new loans. Greater dependency on imports added to global inflation and increased trade deficits. As much as the Majles tried, it shaved a mere 400,000 tumans ($1,000,000) from state expenditure. It abolished the ancient land tenure (toyul) system, an important move that nevertheless in practice proved largely symbolic. Most tenured lands were already incorporated as private estates during the Naseri and Mozaffari periods and were soon to be ratified, in 1910, by the legislation of the second Majles. The pensions of the Qajar princes and hereditary bureaucratic elite were also reduced or terminated altogether, an act of greater consequence for the decline of a sector of the nobility that was devoid of private estates. The court budget too was cut to a mere 75,000 tumans, an act viewed by the shah as a deliberate offense against the monarchy and its public image. Yet he and his weakling court could do nothing but wait. For the time being, the climate was not in their favor. Popular support was for the Majles.

On other items of the reform agenda, the Majles’ record was less impressive. Efforts to create a national bank and national army faltered. Ending the monopoly of the British-controlled Imperial Bank of Persia over the issuance of Iranian paper currency and its grip on Iranian finances (only to be rivaled by the Russian-controlled Mortgage Bank of Persia) had long been a national aspiration. The Majles’ hesitation to establish a national bank was motivated less by insufficient capital, lack of expertise and misuse of the funds, pretexts under which the measure was eventually abandoned, and more by fear of injuring British financial interests at a time when the Majles needed that great power’s unsparing support. The creation of a uniform national army seemed even less of a tenable proposition given the other imperial power’s vested interest in the Russian-trained and Russian-backed Cossack Brigade, the most effective of the forces in the Qajar army. The coup d’état of July 1908 reaffirmed Russia’s use of the Brigade as an instrument of violent repression to sustain Qajar rule (see map 5.2).


In February 1908 two bombs were thrown at Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s cavalcade. At least four were killed, and the royal automobile, one of the earliest in Iran, was damaged, but the shah escaped unharmed (pl. 6.4). The failed assassination, apparently masterminded by Haydar Khan and carried out by Azarbaijani émigrés from Baku, made the shah even less secure about his survival on the throne. His suspicions were aggravated as rumors circulated in Tehran of the candidacy to the throne of his uncle, Prince Zell al-Soltan, whose raw ambitions for the Qajar throne were long the subject of popular speculation. It was starkly clear that the Qajar nobility, afraid for their own survival, were no longer unanimously behind the shah. As early as mid-1907 radical constitutionalists, especially in Tabriz, called on the Majles and the public to remove Mohammad ‘Ali Shah from power. The revolutionary newspapers and preachers were no less shy. By early 1908, it appeared that an armed confrontation between the parties was inevitable.

In fear of the revolutionaries, armed with light weapons, especially in Azarbaijan, the shah was encouraged by his Iranian generals and his former Russian tutor, by then his adviser, to react. More decisively, the Russian commander of the Cossack Brigade, Colonel Vladimir Liakhov, was able to persuade the shah that destruction of the Majles and the mashruteh was the only way out. Liakhov, a career officer who epitomized the brute autocracy of the tsarist era, with a particular taste for violence, seemed to have been motivated by the January 1905 Bloody Sunday clampdown on the revolutionary movement in Russia. As the commander of the Cossacks, he was in a position to coordinate the shah’s intent with the wishes of the Russian authorities in Tiflis and St. Petersburg, perhaps even the approval of Tsar Nicholas II himself. Russian authorities were anxious to wipe out a revolutionary movement that could reignite unrest in the Caucasus. To them, the fall of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah seemed a dear loss not only because the Iranian radicals and the Baku revolutionaries would have gained the upper hand, but also because it could potentially strengthen the chances of the pro-British Zell al-Soltan.

Once the shah stormed out of Golestan Palace in protest and began to fortify himself in the Bagh-e Shah royal compound to the northwest of the capital, it became evident to all but a few reconciling deputies of the Majles that the royalists were preparing for a violent showdown with the Majles, the anjomans, and the advocates of republicanism. The shah was surrounded by the Cossack elites and regular troops, who were anxious to move against the Majles. In response, the armed supporters of the anjomans who identified themselves as Mojaheds (crusaders), took positions on the roof and minarets of the grand Naseri Mosque (later known as Sepahsalar Mosque), adjacent to the Majles. As a consolatory gesture, some Majles deputies still hopeful of reconciling with the shah managed to persuade most of the fighters to abandon their posts, hence inadvertently exposing the Majles to an artillery assault.

On the June 23, 1908, Cossack forces—as many as two thousand cavalry and infantrymen carrying four pieces of artillery—surrounded the Majles and the roads leading to Baharestan Square. The remaining Mojahedin fighters were ready to engage, even though they were reluctant to aim at the Russian officers out of fear of graver consequences. Yet once fighting started, they offered a fierce resistance that last four hours and cost at least forty lives, mostly on the Cossack side. In response, Liakhov ordered the bombardment of the Majles and surrounding buildings. The Majles building, a handsome early example of Perso-European architecture, was severely damaged. Having demolished the symbol of the constitutional regime, the troops swarmed in and looted whatever they could, as they also did with the surrounding buildings occupied by the anjomans and their fighters. To intimidate the general public, the troops then embarked on a bloody campaign of rape, pillage, and killing in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Majles. The Qajar cities were not foreign to government troops’ harassment and ransacking neighborhoods, yet the show of force by the Russian Cossacks was novel, the first to bear the ominous signs of a modern military coup. Taking advantage of the coup in Tehran, royalists coordinated efforts in Tabriz, Shiraz, Zanjan, Isfahan, Kerman, and Rasht by clamping down on the constitutionalists.

A handful of deputies were trapped in the Majles, as well as the two mojtaheds—Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i and Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, who had come to give their moral support and prevent the bloodshed. The journalist Jahangir Shirazi and the revolutionary preacher Malek al-Motekallemin, fearing arrest outside, had taken sanctuary in the Majles. To escape, they cut a hole in the back wall and rushed to take shelter in the surrounding houses, only to be swiftly betrayed and rounded up, battered, and arrested by the Cossack detachments. At least thirty of the most vocal revolutionaries were arrested and detained in the Bagh-e Shah compound, where they were further beaten, interrogated, tortured, and detained. The few who were alerted in advance of the ensuing coup, including Taqizadeh, took refuge in the British and French legations and a handful managed to escape the capital and leave the country. The remaining deputies stayed home, unharmed.

Two among the Bagh-e Shah detainees, the revolutionary preacher Malek al-Motekallemin and the journalist Jahangir Khan Shirazi, topped the shah’s blacklist. They were unceremoniously executed by strangling shortly after their arrival in Bagh-e Shah. Suspected of Babi affiliation (even though they most likely were both agnostics), they were easy and legitimate prey, used to instill terror in the hearts of the public. The other revolutionary preacher, Jamal al-Din Isfahani, another Babi suspect who had fled the capital, was captured in the western town of Borujerd and swiftly put to death by the governor of the province with the shah’s approval. Two other journalists were murdered in prison. The rest of the detainees, including the two mojtaheds, were gradually released and sent into exile, and a few were employed by the shah as go-betweens to the remnants of the Majles deputies (fig. 6.6). The newspapers were all closed down and the anjomans were declared illegal. Two royal announcements proclaimed that, with the removal of the heretics and agitators, the shah intended to restore the “correct” constitutional regime within three months.

The royalist coup, the bombardment of the Majles, and the executions had the effect of terrorizing the public into silence, at least in the capital. People began to go about their business again, and the Tehran bazaar reopened with a sense of relief. With Nuri and his growing contingency of clergy fully integrated into the royalist camp and having abandoned for the most part their mashru‘eh objective in favor of Qajar absolutism, there were hopes that Mohammad ‘Ali Shah would consolidate his reign. Some sycophants among the Majles’ deputies began to ingratiate themselves with the shah, who liked to believe, at least for the sake of appearances, that he favored the constitutional regime. He declared, in conformity with Nuri’s propaganda, that he was against the prevalence of the radicals, heretics, and anarchists.

The royalists needed such rhetoric for domestic consumption but also to improve their tarnished image abroad. Although the coup was welcomed in St. Petersburg’s conservative circles, it was frowned upon in London and elsewhere. Save a handful of liberals in the Persia Committee—formed in October 1908 in support of the Iranian Constitutionalists—the European public was prepared to forget about Iran and its revolution. Most significantly, the great scholar and supporter of Iranian revolution Edward Granville Browne, protested the brutal clampdown in numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles. If it were not for the popular resistance that soon reignited in Tabriz and thereafter in Rasht and Isfahan, constitutionalism seemed to have lost.

Figure 6.6. A group of twenty-two revolutionaries enchained in Bagh-e Shah during the June 1908 coup. The verse reads: “If you wish, your justice breaks up a hundred chains of injustice / Welcome the suffering and endure the chains of tyranny.”

W. M. Shuster, The Strangling of Persia (New York, 1912), 265.

There was also a sense of relief among the public, who hoped to see an end to chaos and a return to the relative calm and security of earlier decades. Growing harassment in towns and villages by plundering tribal horsemen and armed bandits, and encroaching Kurdish irregulars and Russian frontier guards in the northern provinces killed thousands and ravished the countryside. The Majles’ failure to deliver remedies to the country’s economic and social needs was an added source of public frustration. By the time of the coup, it was as though the whole mystique of the mashrutehhad been spoiled, if not lost altogether.


Even though the Tehran parliamentary experiment had collapsed, there was still a flicker of hope in the provinces. In the following months a prolonged, and at times bloody, urban war was waged between the revolutionary fighters and a combination of local royalists, mostly of the Anjoman-e Islamiyeh (Islamic anjoman), belonging to the Usuli neighborhoods of Tabriz, who collaborated with the government troops. During the latter half of 1908 and early 1909, even before the fall of the Majles, the Tabriz militia put up an armed struggle that shifted the fortunes of the Constitutional Revolution, making it even more populist, nationalist, and secular. Once it had grown into a national movement, the civil war consolidated Iran’s national community perhaps more than any other single event in the twentieth century before the oil nationalization movement of the 1950s.

Tabriz was the predictable stage for such a struggle. Like any former capital, there existed a sense of pride and power there, reinforced by the strength of the Tabriz economy, the growth of its population, and its relative openness to the Western presence and practices. As Iran’s largest and most prosperous city, with a population of more than two hundred thousand, it was the hub of northern trade connecting the Anatolian and Caucasian overland routes to the Black Sea and to the Russian Railway across the Caucasian border, and thus the Russian, Ottoman, and European markets. Importing manufactured goods, fabrics, and consumer commodities, the Tabriz merchants competed with the European commercial agents in the city despite unequal customs duties and other disadvantages. The export market of Tabriz, including various cash crops and a magnificent handmade carpet industry that by the turn of the century had surpassed those of Kashan and Isfahan, brought significant income to the city. The Tabriz merchant class financed the constitutional movement and the eventual civil revolt, while the poor and disadvantaged local labor, mostly peasants who intended to benefit from the urban economy, provided the manpower.

Foreign connections brought modern schools and hospitals, including those established by American Presbyterian missionaries. By the turn of the century, city and provincial telephone lines were established. Road and railroad connections to the Caucasian cities and beyond carried Azarbaijani migrant workers to the Baku oil fields, where they constituted the largest ethnic group, and to other Russian cities in search of work. They came back from Baku and Tiflis, then hotbeds of revolutionary socialism, with new radical ideas. Azarbaijani merchant capitalists who made their fortunes in Baku, Tiflis, and Istanbul also viewed with pride and sympathy the growth of the constitutional movement in their homeland. The city’s large and industrious Armenian community also served as an important conduit for technology and business, as well as for revolutionary ideas.

Yet despite tokens of modernity, Tabriz was a traditional city with strong loyalties to religion and geography. Still tied to Shi‘i rituals and shrines, the political maneuvering of influential mojtaheds and old sectarian conflicts divided the city. While some of the largest of the twelve city wards (mahalleh) were identified as Shaykhi, for following mojtaheds from that school, since the early decades of the nineteenth century (possibly replacing the older sectarian loyalties), other important wards were identified as Motesharre‘ (shari‘a-orientated), for their loyalty to the Usuli mojtaheds. As in most other Iranian cities, urban wards served not only as units of municipal administration and a source of communal loyalty but also as bases of operation for the neighborhood vigilantes—generally identified as lutis, with their often precarious life of extortion, violence, and acting as hired daggers for the city notables. As much as there were “bad” lutis known for their dangerous conduct, there were also “good” lutis credited with protecting the neighborhood and extending charity to the poor. With their own code of honor, demeanor, lingo, hierarchy, and appearance, the lutis were feared but also admired.

The two most prominent popular leaders of the Tabriz resistance—Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan, who later were elevated to the status of national heroes—were luti leaders, as were many of their fellow fighters. They were associated with the Shaykhi wards of Amirkhiz and Khayaban, respectively, both of which played a pivotal role in the success of the Tabriz resistance (fig. 6.7). It was primarily the two leaders’ sectarian rivalry with lutis of the opposite league that shaped the conflict and ensured its resilience. But contrary to earlier instances of urban strife, the two leaders were operating largely as free agents. This gave the resistance a popular character somewhat distinct from the politics of the elites that had so far characterized the Constitutional Revolution. Over the course of the fighting in 1908 and 1909, neighborhood loyalties transcended their immediate surroundings to include Tabriz and eventually the whole of the country. The accelerating revolutionary process clearly set “supporters of the constitution” (mashruteh-khvahan) against the royalist camp, who invariably labeled them “supporters of the tyranny” (mostabeddin).

That the Shaykhi quarters opposed the royalist cause was not accidental. Nor was the backing of the Usuli quarters for Mohammad ‘Ali Shah and for Nuri’s mashru‘eh. The Shaykhis had a natural propensity for new ideas and institutions, which can be attributed at least in part to their theology of reconciling the shari‘a with ideas of historical progression, but also to their place in society as upholders of an alternative creed. In contrast, the anti-constitutional Islamic Anjoman of Tabriz operating out of the Dovechi ward was subsidized by the shah’s court to prop up local support for the government onslaught.

Figure 6.7. Leaders of the 1908–1909 Tabriz resistance, Sattar Khan (wearing white) and Baqer Khan (to his left), with their fighters brandishing their rifles in a gesture of defiance.

Contemporary postcard. Author’s collection.

Activism in Tabriz, though, was based on more than neighborhood politics. The so-called Markaz-e Ghaybi (the invisible center), an early clandestine revolutionary cell founded by a certain ‘Ali Monsieur perhaps on the model of the secret societies of the French Revolution, motivated by socialist ideas in vogue in the Caucasus during and after the 1905 Russian Revolution. It was instrumental in organizing the Tabriz neighborhood militias into an effective fighting force. A large numbers of émigrés revolutionaries from among the Muslims, Armenians and Georgians of Baku and Tiflis also joined the resistance. The Baku Social Democratic Party, which included Iranian émigrés, and Russian Social Democrats also supported Tabriz with manpower, money, weapons, and tactical advice.

Sattar Khan (1866–1914), a former horse trader and reformed luti, was a natural leader whose gift for urban warfare complemented his habit of extorting “contributions” for the national cause. Access to the government arsenal inside the Tabriz citadel allowed the fighters, who had adopted the general name Fada’i (devotee), to indulge in a cache of weapons, ammunitions, and field guns (fig. 6.8). Using local expertise, and often improvising, they fortified barricades, gates, and other strategic locations around constitutionalist wards. Beginning with a handful of devotees, Sattar endured not only enemy fire but also defection from his own ranks. Motivated by neighborhood rivalry, personal gain, and a code of honor, he did not easily accept defeat. Though at the outset the Fada’is were primarily motivated by neighborhood loyalties, over time they cultivated greater appreciation for value of constitutionalism.

Figure 6.8. Sattar Khan’s street barricade in the Amirkhiz ward in Tabriz in 1909.

Contemporary postcard. Author’s collection.

For the Tehran coup to succeed, subduing the Tabriz rebels seemed essential, and the shah mustered all the forces he had to achieve this objective. At the outset, and at an enormous cost, he mobilized several regiments from Azarbaijan and elsewhere and sent off to Tabriz the Shahseven irregular cavalry. Later, Cossack reinforcements were dispatched. He financed and gave his blessings to the Tabriz Islamic Anjoman and its affiliated Usuli ulama in the royalist wards. Under the pretext of protecting foreign nationals, the Russian consulate in the city also collaborated with the shah.

The government forces almost succeeded in their objective to isolate Sattar, Baqer, and a handful of their cohorts. But as time passed, fortunes changed once the Fada’is learned how to conduct urban warfare. Government troops in and around the city relentlessly pounded their positions and engaged in pitched battles in narrow streets and in orchards and adjacent villages. Casualties were heavy on both sides, throughout the eleven months amounting to at least five thousand dead and many more injured and displaced. Parts of Tabriz were ruined and villages at the outskirts and along the trade routes in every direction suffered. Innocent citizens were plundered and killed, and merchandise in the Tabriz bazaar and in a new shopping arcade was looted or destroyed by the troops, armed brigands, and by the constitutionalist partisans.

At first, looting and extortion were about the only means of survival for the starving Qajar army and the revolutionary fighters. Later, however, the revolutionary leadership enforced greater discipline among their troops and gradually improvised a chain of command, including fighting units with regular shifts, detachments for special tasks, logistics, a camp kitchen, medical aids (including a camp hospital), makeshift communication and intelligence, a minimum wage, and even a uniform Fada’i karakul cap. These improvements allowed the Tabriz fighters to defend their ground, but they barely made any physical advances between July and October 1908. What was at stake, however, was a symbolic resistance against the Tehran regime that neither the shah nor his Russian backers could afford to ignore. When a new round of fighting began in March 1909 after a three-month lull, the Tabriz fighters enjoyed better finances thanks to a donation committee that had been established to persuade affluent citizens to contribute. They acquired superior weapons, and above all, there was growing moral support within Iran and beyond in the Caucasus and the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turk Revolution that had removed Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid from power in April 1908 was welcomed by the fighters in Tabriz as much as it was despised by Mohammad ‘Ali Shah in Tehran.

High morale is evident in numerous group photographs that have survived. Tabriz fighters proudly pose for the camera with their rifles, rounds of ammunition, and cannon. The palpable allure of firearms in the photographs of the time signified a new mood of defiance, as if weapons empowered ordinary citizens to resist the coercive state and its agents. The photographs, and especially portrayals of the two leaders of the resistance, widely circulated in the form of postcards. They were meant to build up confidence among the people of Azarbaijan and the rest of the country, and soon after to celebrate their victory. And in that, images of the photogenic Sattar proved particularly effective.

The sense of camaraderie was also evident in the way that Georgian and Armenian as well as Baku Muslim volunteers were incorporated into the Tabriz resistance. Recruited by the Baku Social Democratic Party and other radical organizations, these militia forces brought with them superior techniques of urban warfare and a new revolutionary spirit, which helped transform the Tabriz resistance into a national struggle. The Georgian detachment of one hundred volunteers was skilled in urban warfare and the use of explosives, whereas the Armenian Dashnaktsutyun nationalists were experienced in tactical warfare. Baku socialists, in contrast, were crucial in supplying ammunition and new weaponry, and in transferring funds and crossing government lines, at great risk and loss of life.

Of the handful of Westerners who observed the Tabriz resistance, one decided to join in. Howard Baskerville, a twenty-four year-old Nebraskan and recent graduate of Princeton who was serving as a teacher of English and science at the American Presbyterian Memorial Boys School in Tabriz, was a passionate volunteer. Moved by the courage and sacrifice of the Tabriz fighters, and especially the assassination of one of his Iranian colleagues, and despite the wishes of the American consulate, he resigned from his post and embarked on training an elite force. At one time, the group totaled nearly 150 volunteers from among the city’s affluent youth. Relying on his own rudimentary military training, Baskerville and his “rescue squad” hoped to break the government siege of the Fada’i neighborhoods by a surprise attack on the Cossack contingent that was camping at the edge of the city. Despite Sattar’s reluctance, and lacking the support of his own volunteers, Baskerville decided to charge, only to be shot point-blank. His grand funeral was a tribute more to his heroism than his good judgment. It was also the height of an ecumenical camaraderie that broke through ethnicity, religion, and nationality.

Baskerville’s death occurred at the height of the Tabriz resistance, in April 1909. Mustering all its forces, the Tehran government eventually and with great difficulty blockaded all supply routes to Tabriz in hopes of starving the city into surrender. The grievous siege of Tabriz between January and April, which caused widespread shortages, had the potential to break the resisting constitutionalists (see map 5.2). Although fighting forces in Rasht and Isfahan, by then called the nationalists (melliyun), were acting in greater accord with Tabriz, and although the Tehran regime appeared pliant—issuing a royal decree that promised restoration of the constitutional regime—the Russian legation in Tehran, conveying St. Petersburg’s wishes, was not willing to compromise. The loss of Tabriz would be a serious blow to Russian prestige, not only because the tsarist government was heavily invested in Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s survival but also because a constitutionalist victory could rekindle a revolutionary spirit in the Caucasus. All the more, even the liberal press in St. Petersburg praised the Tabriz fighters and was critical of Tehran’s callous despotism.

Securing the safety of Russian nationals offered the needed pretext for Russian troops to intervene in accordance with the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 and with the tacit approval of London. They crossed the Iranian border and by the end of April 1909 marched into Tabriz. Their arrival, the first since the 1827 occupation of the city after Iran’s defeat in the war with Russia, aroused mixed feelings among the inhabitants. It opened the supply lines, relieving starvation, and facilitated the resumption of trade. The de facto cease-fire brought calm and security, which had been missing since the start of the fighting nearly a year before. Yet occupation was seen as a major setback for the national struggle. Though government troops lifted the siege, retreated to their camps, or withdrew completely from around the city, the prospects of the Russian military presence were ominous enough for Mohammad ‘Ali Shah.

Seldom in Iran’s history had an urban uprising succeeded in repelling government troops. But even less typical was the support of a tribal power for a popular urban cause. The Bakhtiyaris of central and southwestern Iran, arguably the largest confederacy in the country, were an odd candidate to support Tabriz, since a few detachments of Bakhtiyari horsemen were among the government troops fighting in Tabriz. Yet a rival faction in the Bakhtiyari leadership turned in favor of the constitutionalists. It was headed by ‘Ali-Qoli Khan Sardar As‘ad (1856–1917), a cultivated khan with nationalist predilections whose interest in Iranian history, and that of his own tribe, along with his previous residence in Europe, had converted him into a liberal nationalist of some valor. Beginning early in 1909, the Bakhtiyari horsemen under his command, well equipped by standards of the time, were a formidable force in the south of the country. Unlike the constitutionalist fighters in the Tabriz wards, they enjoyed the freedom of the steppes and nomadic mobility, which allowed them to capture Isfahan with relative ease. Sardar As‘ad was successful in forging a semblance of unity among the khans of his tribe’s major league. That the Bakhtiyari lands happened to be where oil was first discovered in Iran, as early as 1908, was not entirely irrelevant to the future prominence of this tribe in national politics. In 1909, however, the issue of oil and British dealings with the Bakhtiyaris were not yet a factor.

The call for a concerted march to Tehran first came from the fighters in Rasht, where an assortment of Caucasian social democrats and Armenian volunteers, arriving in Russian vessels via the Caspian, joined hands with the Rasht fighters for control of the provincial center. They came to be known as Melliyun (nationalists). As with the Bakhtiyaris, here, too, a major local dignitary, Gholam-Hosain Khan Tonekaboni, later known as Sepahdar, and some of his allies among the landowning classes of prosperous Gilan province, shifted their loyalties from Tehran to the nationalists’ side. Sepahdar, who earlier had fought with his troops against the Tabriz resistance, reappeared in a new nationalist guise. His rise to prominence denoted the dawn of a provincial landowning class that would come to play a major role in the politics of the postrevolutionary era.

Despite the despair and uncertainty of the moment, there was an air of optimism for constitutional restoration, and even though radical elements vowed to remove Mohammad ‘Ali Shah, there was a fair amount of support for compromise as well. This virtual telegraphic community in Iran, for they primarily communicated through telegraphic messages, was defiant toward elements within the Tehran court, and in that they found themselves in a surprising accord with the two neighboring powers. In April 1909 a strongly worded Anglo-Russian memorandum warned the shah that unless he restored the constitution and removed its enemies from his court, he stood to lose the two powers’ already-sinking confidence in him—a warning that appeared to the shah’s opposition as a green light to capture Tehran. In reality, it was meant to encourage the shah to restore some semblance of a constitutional regime in order to stop the constitutionalists’ advances.


On July 13, 1909, the nationalist forces, as they collectively came to be known, headed jointly by Sardar As‘ad and Sepahdar, finally entered the capital. The skirmishes south of Tehran with the demoralized Cossack regiments headed by Russian officers and regular government troops were indecisive. Despite months of repeated Russian and British warnings that jointly and individually demanded that the nationalists stay away from the capital, a force of nearly three thousand Bakhtiyari and Gilan fighters engaged for two days in a mopping up operations inside the capital. Colonel Liakhov and his troops surrendered, only to be commissioned, ironically, back into service by the nationalists even though they momentarily faded out of the revolutionary limelight. Mohammad ‘Ali Shah himself and an entourage of five hundred, including his hated army chief, Hosain Pasha Amir Bahador Jang, negotiated his way to the Russian legation, where he took refuge under the joint protection of the two powers. Conscious of European sensitivities, the nationalists quickly secured diplomatic missions and assured the safety of foreign residents, even before marching to the ruins of the Majles building, where on July 15 they officially announced the abdication of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah from the Qajar throne.

With a discipline that impressed even the mostly hostile European press corps, the Bakhtiyari tribesmen and a contingent of the Armenian fighters from Gilan restored order in the capital, set up a rudimentary headquarters, and soon declared Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s minor son, Sultan Ahmad (1898–1930), as the new shah. The elder of the Qajar tribe, ‘Ali Reza ‘Azod al-Molk (1847–1910), became his regent. By any account, the success of the nationalist forces was impressive. There was no looting, revenge killing, or retaliation. Even more remarkable was the level of cooperation between the heterogeneous rank and file of Gilani and Bakhtiyari fighters, who could barely communicate with one another in Persian.

The conquest of Tehran was an ephemeral, but defining, moment in Iran’s modern history. Soon after the arrival of the Tabriz fighters and their heroes—Sattar Khan, now celebrated as Sardar Melli (national commander) and his colleague Baqer Khan as Salar Milli (national chief)—instilled a spirit of optimism in the hearts of many Iranians. Deposing Mohammad ‘Ali Shah and his mashru‘eh ally, despite Russia’s unabashed backing of the royalists, was a rare triumph in the age of high imperialism. For a moment, it seemed as if the desire to create a liberal democratic order had overcome not only the impediments of arbitrary rule and reactionary ulama, but also brutish European imperial ambitions. It was as though through a national struggle, and its narrative of salvation, the beast of misrule and misery had been subdued and a new road to prosperity paved (pl. 6.5). The new Ahmad Shah was hailed as a constitutional monarch, despite some talk of republicanism in the radical circles.

The nationalists’ maneuvering to power, and the level of independence their leaders displayed, took the representatives of Russia and Britain by surprise and generated much dismay. Russia had only complied with restoration of the constitution and abdication of the former shah with grudges, and Britain was not far behind. By the time Tehran was taken by the nationalists, at least three thousand Russian troops had already crossed the border and occupied northern Iran, stretching from Azarbaijan to Gilan and northern Khorasan and advancing as far south as Qazvin, only ninety-five miles from the capital. The audacity with which imperial Russia trampled Iran’s sovereignty, contrary to the terms of the Anglo-Russian agreement ensuring the opposite, apparently required not even a diplomatic fig leaf. No longer shackled by a British counteraction, the Russian move had already cast its shadow over the newly restored but fragile regime. It also heightened anti-Russian sentiments that had been boiling up since the turn of the twentieth century. Iranians admired Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and saw it as a promising sign that a European expansionist empire could be defied, if not defeated (fig. 6.9) Earlier defeats of the British colonial army in the Second Anglo-Boer War, in 1902, stirred similar sentiments.

Even worse than Russian intervention, now masked as preserving its “interests,” were the Russians’ profound cultural biases. The condescension of diplomatic communiqués about the nationalists’ advances and their eventual victory was outdone only by the hostile reporting of newspapers such as the Times of London and echoed by the New York Times, among others. That the Iranians could resist, fight back, and defeat a regime militarily backed and financially buttressed by European imperial powers was something that could not be easily accepted or forgiven. Evoking familiar Orientalist paradigms, there was an obsessive anxiety that the “safety” of the European residents in Tehran would be violated by hordes of nomadic invaders and socialist radicals. Their expressed disbelief that the capital could be captured without bloodshed was even more telling while at the same time conveniently ignored the arrival of the Russian invaders in the north. Reading between the lines, one can see in the begrudging expressions of approval for the nationalists’ success a skeptical dismissal that the constitutional project could never succeed, as if a scheme to destroy this delicate chance already lurking in the back of diplomats’ minds.

Figure 6.9. A 1904 Japanese propaganda map showing tentacles of the expansionist Russian Empire suffocating many nations, including Persia.

By Kisaburo Ohara. Courtesy of the Map Collection, Yale University Library.

The coverage of the Tabriz resistance, the recapture of Tehran, and the downfall of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah inaugurated Iran’s first major exposure in the international press, making front-page headlines. A handful of correspondents from English, Russian, and French dailies and freelance observers with diverse viewpoints brought to Western audiences the unfolding of a struggle that contradicted stereotypes of indolence and deceit meticulously crafted over centuries and even admitted by Iranians in their own narratives of decline. Now there was a new revolutionary resolve apparent even in the midst of the civil war. Awaiting the final assault on Tehran in his camp outside the capital, Sardar As‘ad, the French-educated Bakhtiyari khan, daringly replied to the English and Russian representatives who were warning him of the dire consequences of storming the capital in one sentence: “on se verra à Téhéran” (see you in Tehran).

Contrary to the cynicism of most European observers, and contrary to perceptions of failure in later historiography, the Emergency Committee, formed just after the conquest of the capital, mustered an impressive list of accomplishments. To restore calm and security to the terrorized capital, the committee put Yeprem Khan (1868–1912), an Armenian revolutionary commander originally from the Ganjeh province (today in the Republic of Azerbaijan) in charge of Tehran’s police department. With his aides among the Rasht fighters, he quickly ended the looting and terrorizing by government troops, by irregulars disbanded after the collapse of the old regime, and by the newly arrived revolutionary forces. The committee, or Supreme Council, as it came to be known, consisted of the two nationalist leaders and a number of ministers from among the younger bureaucratic elite. Soon to be dominated by Taqizadeh, who had returned from his exile, the committee came to play a major part in the days after the restoration of the constitution. It allocated ministries to its members but avoided appointing a prime minister, and it successfully negotiated the terms for the exile of the deposed shah. Through the mediation of the two powers, the committee granted the deposed shah a hefty salary and saw that he would be deported along with his entourage. Once a revolutionary cabinet was formed with Sepahdar as premier, the electoral law was swiftly revised, replacing the seven classes of deputies of the first Majles with direct representation. A nationwide election was held, and by November 1909 the second Majles was in session.

More symbolic, and more daring, were the trials held shortly after the nationalists’ victory. To the Supreme Council’s credit, a national amnesty was declared, and there were hardly any vengeful killings. Only a handful of reactionaries were arrested and tried. Of the five who were executed by order of a special tribunal on specific charges of murdering constitutionalist protesters in the sanctuary of ‘Abd al-‘Azim during the final days of the old regime, the most prominent was Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri, the relentless opponent of the constitutionalists. The tribunal held as proof of its verdict Nuri’s fatwa to the effect that killing the protesters in the sanctuary was lawful. It hence underscored the new regime’s wishes not to punish anyone for ideological orientation. In the final months of the so-called Minor Tyranny, as the period of the civil war came to be known, Nuri had abandoned his earlier call for mashru‘eh in favor of the old absolutist order and avowed support for Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s suppression of the constitutionalists. With peculiar zeal he orchestrated clerical petitions from the growing number of clergy in Tehran and elsewhere expressing loyalty to the Qajar regime and warning the shah of any compromise that might result in restoration of the constitution. Hanged by the gallows in Tup Khaneh Square in front of a dazed public witnessing the unprecedented execution of a mojtahed, one of the most prominent Shi‘i jurists of his time, the execution was emblematic of changing times. It seemed as though the kingship and the clergy, the two pillars of the ancient Iranian order, were cracked, if not shattered, by contingencies of a modern revolutionary movement.

Another encouraging sign of change was the diversity of voices in the public sphere. The growth of the press and publications, the emergence of parliamentary factions and political parties, the first audible pleas of women protesting society’s misogynistic norms, and a greater sophistication in cultural and political discourse were evident and seemingly irreversible. By the end of 1909 there were half dozen dailies and a growing number of book titles catering to a larger readership. In the following months and years, despite major upheavals, the number of newspapers multiplied, and although many of them were short lived, they demonstrated not only a new relish in the freedom of expression—even freedom to slander—but also the potency of the press in fashioning the country’s nascent public opinion.

Among the most articulate was the daily Iran-e Naw (New Iran), edited by the formidable Azerbaijani socialist, Mohammad Amin Rasulzadeh (1884–1955), who later was a founding father of the Azerbaijan Socialist Republic. Iran-e Naw offered domestic and international coverage, acute political analysis, and debates on poverty, corruption, elitist polity, conservative Islam, and women’s rights. Yet there was a limit to how far the burgeoning press could challenge the time-honored sanctions. Already in late 1909, largely to counterbalance the effects of Nuri’s execution and to exonerate itself as the guardian of Islam, the revolutionary regime convicted a leading journalist of the time, Hasan Mo’ayyed al-Islam Kashani, editor of the celebrated Habl al-Matin, of blasphemy. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for alleging in a rhetorical piece that the religion of the seventh-century Arabs and subsequent primacy of Islamic conservatism were at the root of Iran’s backwardness and steady decline. Whatever its historical accuracy, such claims (ironically made by a man whose title meant “confirmer of Islam”) heralded the agnostic, even anti-Islamic, propensity among modernists of the period. Idealizing the ancient Iranian past as an alternative to its recent Islamic legacy was to become a pillar of Iranian conscious nationalism in the postconstitutional period. More immediately, however, the episode foreshadowed the clashes in the political arena between conservatives and progressives.


The very convening of the second Majles, though a victory for the nationalists, was riddled with factionalism, ideological rifts, and foreign intimidation. These pressures brought the Majles to a temporary halt by December 1911 and resulted in suspension of the constitution. The period between 1909 and 1911, and in a broader sense between 1905 and 1921, proved an unequal experiment in Iranian history. Remarkable though it was, however, it ended in tragic setbacks for it was unable not only to keep European intrusion at bay but also bar the old landed elite from return to power.

Two broad political tendencies emerged in the second Majles, each with its own support from among activists and the press, even though the revolutionary anjomans of the first Majles failed to transform fully into political parties and even to effective interest groups. The Moderates (E‘tedaliun), as they came to be known, were the largest block consisting of landowning magnates and tribal leaders among the nationalists, the younger generation of the Qajar officialdom, remnants of the Qajar elite who adjusted to the new realities, and the leaders of the Tabriz resistance, including Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan. The Social Democrats (Ejtema‘iun ‘Ammiun), or simply Democrats, as the progressives came to be known, were mostly intellectuals inspired by European liberal thought, by the Caucasian and Russian socialists, and by the Young Turks who had recently came to power in the Ottoman Empire.

In contrast to the Moderates’ gradualist approach, the Social Democrats intended to carry out a comprehensive program of reforms, the rudiments of which were already laid out in the debates of the first Majles and articulated in exile during the Minor Tyranny. Best known among the democrats was Taqizadeh, who allied with progressive elements ranging from members of the nobility with a socialist bent, Sardar As‘ad, and liberal ulama of the younger generation to some revolutionary fighters and influential journalists. The Democrats’ most urgent demands included basic land reform, the elimination of hereditary privileges, public education, use of the state apparatus for social reform, and even a call for the inclusion of women in the public arena. They shared with their moderate colleagues (with varying degrees of sincerity) calls for the unification of Iran’s armed forces and an urgent need to restore security and peace in the provinces, centralize finances, and increase state revenue through efficient taxation and the establishment of a national bank. Put simply, the party had to address the dire needs of a nearly bankrupt government that had grown in size over the previous decade.

A comprehensive program such as this was bound to encounter obstacles, especially in the area of security and finances. Most glaring, yet predictable, was a sharpening divide among the constitutionalists, which soon led to political assassinations and factional clashes. The most notable victim of political unrest was Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, a clerical icon of the constitutional struggle. In June 1910, he was assassinated by a Caucasian terrorist cell associated with Haydar Khan ‘Amu-Ughlu, who apparently had taken his cue from Taqizadeh and his radical supporters. Behbahani’s fall displayed a resistance among the Democrats toward the presence of the clerical dignitaries on the political stage. This surely contributed to demoralizing the ulama, and even the diminishing pro-constitutional wing of the Shi‘i leadership in Iran and in Iraq.

Mulla Mohammad Kazem Khorasani (1839–1911), a leading pro-constitutional jurist and a marja‘ in Najaf and his anti-constitutionalist rival, found themselves united in denouncing Taqizadeh as a heretic and calling for the exile and punishment of his cohorts. The other clerical father of the Constitutional Revolution, Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i, had wisely retired from politics; he later died in Tehran in near obscurity. The clerical element did not abandon the revolutionary stage altogether, but never again would it occupy the prominent position it had maintained since the Tobacco Protest of 1891. The incident also demonstrated the disruptive role of the radical left in the politics of the period. Three major assassination attempts since 1907, all orchestrated by Haydar Khan and his cohorts, helped polarize the climate. In the decade after 1911 more political violence justified further draconian measures.

A more extensive clash between rival revolutionary factions occurred shortly afterward in August 1910. Most Tabriz fighters headed by Sattar Khan backed the moderates. Yet they acted as free agents, causing huge problems of law and order in the capital. Their street clashes with the equally rowdy, and superior in number, Bakhtiyari fighters from the province of Isfahan, were seen by the Supreme Council as a precursor to another civil war. The Tabriz Fada’is’ grievances revolved around their inability to financially support themselves, which in turn made some resort to extorting the rich. Their exclusion from the newly reorganized police force under Yeprem Khan was another source of discontent. Accused of insubordination, the Azarbaijani fighters who were clustered in the Atabak Park, the confiscated residence of the assassinated premier Amin al-Soltan, engaged in a random shootout with government troops. The combined forces of Cossack regiments, serving under the revolutionary government; the regular troops; and the Bakhtiyari riflemen routed the Fada’is’ resistance. Sattar Khan, who unsuccessfully tried to mediate a cease-fire, was shot in the ankle and removed from Atabak Park in disgrace. The Tabriz fighters were disarmed, and some of the most radical elements among them, mostly Caucasians, were forced to return to their homelands.

The incident was a clear victory for the government and the Majles, which had long called for the disarming of the revolutionary factions. Sattar’s downfall epitomized the end to street resistance in favor of the provincial landed elite, that came to substitute for the old Qajar nobility, and the new generation of the officials, mostly sons of high bureaucrats of the Naseri period who had been brought up in wealth and privilege. The latter formed the backbone of a new class of officialdom. Mostly educated in Europe or exposed to Western ways, the air of respectability of these ministers and officials came to define the emerging polity of the period and the conduct of its agents. The large landowners who were their natural allies were distant from the mass constituency of the revolution who had put them in office. Yet patriotism, devotion to the constitution, and belief in reform and progress were still powerful motives among the members of the new elite, often outweighing personal and group interests.

What was missing was a common vision to nurture an indigenous mode of democracy that had been first made tangible in its early days of the revolution. The new elite simulated this goal more in form than in substance. What remained a characteristic of the postrevolutionary period, for instance, was the mutual distrust between the Majles and the executive branch, manned by the political elite. Between March 1907 and November 1911 there were eleven changes of prime ministers and additional reshuffling of the cabinets. The widespread problem of a rapid succession of weak and irresolute governments, each holding power for a few months, recalled musical chairs, with characters from the old and new elite routinely occupying various posts to a monotonous tune of timidity and indecision. The ministers were often backed by the Moderates in the Majles, who viewed the ministers’ inefficiency as an opportunity to protect their own privileges against threats from the Democrats’ quarter. Both tendencies, however, shared the misperception that the Majles’ function did not end with legislation but also included close monitoring of the day-to-day affairs of the executive branch—a notion understood by many in the parliament as an abiding principal of constitutionalism.

Even if such confusion in the division of powers can be excused in a nascent democratic experiment, the obvious increase in foreign influences cannot. In the following years, leading up to the rise of Reza Khan Pahlavi in 1921, Russia and Britain brazenly pressured the government and the Majles, persuading its members through intimidation or favors. The Russians in particular acted with a vengeance, having felt discredited after the fall of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah. Even more than the Qajar officials of the past decades, some members of the new elite feared the European powers and their intrigues or felt helplessly inferior, if not entirely submissive, to them. The haughty conduct of the two powers, especially during the 1911 Shuster episode, fostered feelings of desperation and disillusionment among Iranian statesmen and the public.


Following an initiative in the Majles to reform the country’s finances and the urgency for an efficient revenue collection, the Iranian legation in Washington, DC, asked the US State Department to recommend an American financial adviser to serve as treasurer general of Iran. William Morgan Shuster, a banker who had also served in the US government with integrity and candor, was recommended at a time when Iranian finances were suffering from diminishing income, the obligation to service foreign loans, and growing expenses. The Iranian public finance, fiscal policy, and tax collection, though partially improved by greater centralization, still suffered from the arcane practices of the state accountants. Employing an American expert was thought to be prudent because it would have saved Iran from pressures exerted by the neighboring powers. Shuster’s arrival stirred excitement among nationalists while causing anxiety to representatives of both powers and their Iranian associates.

A man of frank demeanor and daring initiatives, Shuster and his American team represented the first serious involvement of the United States in Iran, albeit as a purely private initiative. Before then the US presence in Iran had been limited to a few nongovernmental areas, including American Presbyterian missionaries who had been active in northwestern Iran among the Nestorian Christians since the 1830s. Later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modern American missionary schools in Orumiyeh, Tabriz, Hamadan, and Tehran educated non-Muslims and eventually Muslim girls and boys. Though negotiations to establish diplomatic relations went back to an unratified treaty of commerce and navigation from 1856, it was only in 1883 that formal relations between the United States and Iran materialized. Even then, despite Iran’s repeated attempts under Naser al-Din Shah to engage the United States in trade, finance, and security—even offering the right to a naval presence in the Persian Gulf to counter British predominance—there was a serious reluctance on the side of the Americans to cross into the traditionally recognized Anglo-Russian zones of influence. Recommending Shuster, even though he was first cleared with the British embassy, indicated a cautious change in American attitudes toward the emerging democratic regime in Iran.

From the start, Shuster rebuked Iran’s chaotic finances, political vacillation, and infirmity of the government and the Majles. He was outspoken in his critiques of the imperial powers and their discriminatory practices. In his 1912 The Strangling of Persia, published just after his forced departure from Iran, he gave a vivid portrayal of the Iranian plight in the face of European aggression. He dedicated his book to the Persian people, who by “their unwavering belief, under difficult and forbidding circumstances,” employed him to help with the task of the “reorganization of their nation.” In the foreword to the book, he expressed deep disappointment at “being forcibly deprived of the opportunity to finish [this] intensely interesting task in that ancient land,” where “two powerful and presumably enlightened Christian countries played fast and loose with truth, honor, decency, and law, one at least, hesitating not even at the most barbarous cruelties to accomplish its political designs and to put Persia beyond hope of self reorganization.” In a passionate plea to his American readers, he then stated: “The Constitutionalists of Modern Persia will not have lived, struggled, and in many instances, died entirely in vain, if the destruction of Persian sovereignty shall have sharpened somewhat the civilized world’s realization of the spirit of international brigandage which is marked the welt-politik of the year 1911.”3

The lightly veiled reference to Britain and Russia, and especially the latter’s hostility toward Iran’s constitutional regime, reflects not only Shuster’s anti-imperialist sentiments but also the nature of troubles that he and his American colleagues faced the moment they set foot on Persian soil. Even before he began the financial reorganization, most of his time and energy during his stay—from May 1911 to January 1912—was wasted resisting greedy high officials and the intrigue of the two powers. Preying on the bankrupt treasury, the old elite hoped to secure even more loans, this time £4,000,000 ($20,000,000) from a private English financier. Moreover, Shuster’s effort to organize a new gendarmerie force under the treasury led to an acute crisis that threatened the very survival of the constitutional regime.

Shortly after Shuster’s arrival, a counterrevolutionary movement reached its peak in July 1911, when the deposed Mohammad ‘Ali Shah, who had resided in Odessa in the Ukraine since his abdication, arrived in the small Caspian port of Gomish Tappeh in northeastern Iran, near Astarabad, aboard a Russian steamship. Aided by a few thousand Turkmen tribesmen, he marched toward Tehran. At the same time his brother, Abol-Fath Mirza Salar al-Dowleh (1881–1961), mobilizing the Kurdish tribes of the northwest, occupied the western city of Kermanshah and advanced toward Tabriz and Hamadan. The initiative to restore Mohammad ‘Ali or his brother to the Qajar throne enjoyed more than an implicit blessing from St. Petersburg. Predictably, the news of these advances plunged Tehran into panic. The revolutionary government feared the vim of a Russian reprisal more than the vigor of Turkmen and Kurdish horsemen. Moreover, it could not secure from the representatives of the two powers even verbal condemnation of the pincer assault on the constitutional government, despite their commitments to bar the deposed shah from ever returning to Iran. The government in Tehran, surrounded by remnants of old Qajar loyalists in the capital, in desperation mobilized an assortment of Bakhtiyari horsemen fresh from Isfahan, police detachments under Yeprem Khan, and Armenian volunteers from the Caucasus to march against the counterrevolutionary hordes, who were less than thirty miles from the capital.

Persuaded by Shuster, Tehran also issued a public warrant for Mohammad ‘Ali Shah dead or alive, setting a prize of 100,000 tumans ($237,000). In a brief engagement the commander of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s forces was captured and shot. Even before his retreating horsemen arrived back to their base north of Astarabad on the Russian side of the frontier, the deposed shah boarded the same steamship and fled back to Russia, then Europe. He died in 1925 in exile in San Remo, Italy. Soon after his retreat, Salar al-Dowleh was defeated south of Tehran and fled abroad. The deployment of a Maxim gun operated by a German artillery instructor who was serving with Yeprem’s troops inflicted swift military defeat on Salar al-Dowleh’s forces. A major blow to the constitutionalists, however, was the loss of Yeprem Khan, who in May 1912 was killed in the course of engagement. By October 1912 all aspirations for restoring the ancien régime had dissipated.


The failure to restore the former shah to the Qajar throne further infuriated Russian authorities and added to their hostility toward Iran’s constitutional government. Seeking another pretext to humiliate, and eventually eliminate, the parliamentary regime, in October 1911 the Russian minister in Tehran served an “ultimatum,” demanding that the Iranian government formally apologize for the “insult” committed against the Russian consul general or face immediate military consequences. The apology sought from the Iranian government was in response to the Majles’ authorization of the Treasurer General Shuster to confiscate the properties of the treasonous Salar al-Dowleh and his brother Sho’a’ al-Saltaneh, the chief perpetrators of the counterrevolutionary plot. Under the pretext that the latter prince had secured a loan from the Russian Mortgage Bank the Russian consul general subsequently ordered the Cossack officers to occupy the prince’s residence as collateral and force out Shuster’s agents who had come to appropriate the residence. The vengeful consul offered an equally fictitious claim that the prince was a Russian protégé and therefore subject to capitulatory rights extended to Russian subjects.

Fearful of dire consequences, the Iranian government succumbed to the threat of brute force. To appease St. Petersburg, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs arrived in person to the Russian legation and offered a formal apology on behalf of his government. Yet there was no end to the demands of the two powers or their shared desire to dismantle Iran’s young democracy. Almost immediately after the so-called satisfaction was given, on November 29 the Russian government served a second ultimatum to Iran, this time openly backed by Britain.

In a rare expression of international bullying, the second ultimatum required Iran to immediately fulfill three conditions or else face Russian military occupation, and in effect an end to its national sovereignty. It demanded that Morgan Shuster be dismissed from his post of treasurer general together with his American colleagues. It also demanded that in the future, the Iranian government not engage the service of foreign nationals without the consent of the two powers. Most outrageous of all, the ultimatum demanded that the Iranian government pay “indemnity” for the “expense of the present dispatch of troops” to Iran, the amount and manner of which was to be determined later. This demand was made at a time when Russia had landed more troops in Gilan and Azarbaijan provinces to reinforce its so-called zone of influence. The two powers in effect blatantly required that Iran reimburse the cost of the violation of its own sovereignty to an aggressor who, as it turned out, went on a rampage of massacres and maltreatment of defenseless Iranians.

The second ultimatum, even more than the first, raised a storm inside and outside the Majles, leading to a nationwide movement of outrage, speeches in mosques and the Majles in support of Shuster, and telegraph messages of solidarity from the provinces. The Shi‘i clerical condemnations of the Europeans’ nefarious designs on the constitutional regime and the oppressed Iranian nation were headed by Mohammad Kazem Khorasani and his colleagues in Najaf. They called for the boycott of Russian and English goods in the bazaar, the revival of armed revolutionary anjomans, and the elimination of the royalists.

Figure 6.10. Imam Jom‘eh of Shiraz preaching to the women. Despite segregation, women’s presence in mosques and mourning rituals allowed for their participation in the social sphere.

By Hasan ‘Akkas-bashi, c. 1901. M. Sane‘ Paydayesh-e ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 78.

A rare voice of protest was also raised by women, who for the first time in public acted on their own—not merely beside their male relatives—to call for a struggle against the nation’s foreign and domestic enemies and support for the constitutional government and adoption of modern social and ethical values (fig. 6.10). It was as if the spirit of mashruteh had been resurrected. Except this time it became painfully evident that the primary terminator of Iranian aspirations was not the Qajar regime and its clerical allies, but the dictates of European grand strategy—this even before a drop of Iranian oil had reached Europe’s Great War.

The seventy deputies of the Majles, encouraged by calls to defy the Russian threat, including a women’s demonstration along Lalehzar Avenue, voted against the government’s recommendation to accept the ultimatum just minutes before the forty-eight-hour deadline the Russians had set. The Bakhtiyari-dominated cabinet nevertheless succumbed to pressure and dismissed Shuster. Driven by realistic fears of Russian onslaught, the Bakhtiyari oligarchs were also willing to comply with Russian wishes, because at the time they were negotiating with British authorities over land rights in the newly discovered oil field of Masjed Soleiman in Khuzestan province. The prospects in their tribal territory were too lucrative to be jeopardized by offending Russia, now the ally of Britain.

The Majles, however, stood firm until the end. Even the disheartening news of the sudden death on December 13 of Mohammad Kazem Khorasani in Najaf did not deter the deputies. Dying under suspicious circumstances while on his way to Tehran, Khorasani was apparently contemplating declaring jihad against Russia. Rumors in Tehran held Russian agents responsible for his death even though tacit British blessing was not ruled out. Even if these were sheer speculations, they were enough to demoralize the public and erode support for the Majles.

The Russians had no intention of coming to terms with the Majles. Since December 1, Russian troops had reoccupied Tabriz and gone on a rampage of plunder, rape, abduction, and killing of innocent people. The Tabriz urban militia, the remnants of the Fada’is remobilized under the acting city council, put up a stiff resistance during three weeks of street battles with a Russian force of five thousand. Yet despite nearly eight hundred Russian casualties, the Tabrizi snipers were eventually outnumbered by Russian reinforcements of royalist Shahseven tribes. Together they inflicted heavy casualties on the population and destroyed some of the city’s most remarkable monuments, including Arg ‘Ali-Shah, the formidable thirteenth-century Ilkhanid citadel. Even more vicious, on the day of ‘Ashura (September 13, 1912), the occupying Russian forces publicly hanged eight leaders of the Tabriz resistance, including the enlightened constitutionalist Shaykhi mojtahed of the city, ‘Ali Aqa Seqat al-Islam Tabrizi (1861–1911). Their bodies remained on the gallows for days after. In due course, thirty-six other nationalists were hanged on bogus charges of resisting foreign occupation.

By early 1912 the Russian army, then twenty thousand strong, had occupied the entirety of Iran’s northern provinces, from Khoy in western Azarbaijan to Sarakhs in the extreme northeastern Khorasan. Facing resistance from the population of Mashhad, who had taken refuge in the shrine of Musa al-Rida, the Eighth Shi‘i Imam, the holiest site in Iran, Russian field guns battered to ruin the shrine’s golden dome while invading troops looted the shrine’s treasury. For the following five years through terror and violence, the occupying Russian army kept a tenuous hold on the northern half of the country. Small wonder that Iranians welcomed the news of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Not to fall behind, Britain also brought in more troops to the south. Under the pretext of securing British interests against tribal unrest, the sepoy detachments of the Indian Army moved up from the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr to Shiraz and Isfahan, where they faced open hostility. In both cities bazaars were closed in protest, the ulama boycotted British products, and a ban was observed on the sale of goods and provisions to the invading troops. The nationwide spirit of resentment of the foreign occupation went beyond the cities and into the countryside, where southern tribes, most significantly the Qashqa’i and the Khamseh of Fars, staged a revolt against the pro-British Bakhtiyari khans in Tehran. Yet the tribal resistance soon fizzled out in internecine rivalry and disarray.

In Tehran, twice rejecting the ultimatum, the Majles in effect gave a vote of no confidence to the premier Najaf-Qoli Khan Samsam al-Saltaneh (1846–1930), the pro-British Bakhtiyari khan, who came to dominate the political stage. Irrespective of the vote, he stayed in office throughout the crisis. Earlier, on December 24, 1911, under enormous Russian and British pressure, and after some twelve thousand Russian troops had amassed in the Caspian port of Anzali, ready to march on Tehran, the Bakhtiyari premier, aided by Yeprem Khan, had ordered the newly formed Homayun regiment to occupy the Majles, expel all the deputies from the premises, and close the gates. The deputies were threatened with death if they attempted to meet in the parliament or elsewhere.

The cabinet had already secured the support of Abol-Qasem Nāser al-Molk (1826–1927), the second person to occupy the office of regent to the minor Ahmad Shah. A well-versed, Oxford-educated aristocrat of the powerful and wealthy Qaragozlu family of Hamadan, and a friend of both Edward Gray and George Curzon, he proved to be a learned man but a timid statesman when it came to leading the country at a critical juncture. Fearing Russian occupation of the capital, he declared the end of the second Majles and suspension of the constitution under extraordinary circumstances. A committee of five ministers thereby accepted the Russian ultimatum and abided by its terms, with minor modifications. Soon after, in January 1912, Morgan Shuster and his party of American associates resigned and left Iran, traveling in motorcars less than a year after they had arrived in horse carriages (fig. 6.11).

Figure 6.11. Morgan Shuster and his family leaving Tehran in January 1912 after the second Anglo-Russian ultimatum required his departure.

W. M. Shuster, The Strangling of Persia (New York, 1912), 228.

On the eve of his forced departure, demonstrations were held in the Baharestan Square in front of the Majles, and schoolchildren shouted, “Independence or death!” Witnessing this scene, the great bard of the Constitutional Revolution, Abol-Qasem ‘Aref Qazvini (1882–1934), composed a song for which only the lyrics have survived:

Shame on the house that let the guest leave the table,

Renounce life and let not the guest depart!

If Shuster leaves the country, Iran will be lost,

O youth of the country, let not Iran be lost! . . .

The cup of our patience brimmed,

For the thief wishes to rub our house with impunity.

Our story will be the shame of the world history,

If we allow Shuster to leave Iran.4

In his heart-wrenching account of the suspension of the mashruteh, Shuster himself called the destruction of the democratic experience in Iran “a sordid ending to a gallant struggle for liberty and enlightenment.” Reflecting on his short experience he further wrote:

That the Persians were unskillful in the practical politics and in the technique of representative constitutional government no one could deny; but that they had the full right to develop along particular lines of their customs, character, temperament and tendencies, is equally obvious. Five years is nothing in the life of a nation; it is not even long as a period for individual reform; yet after a bare five years of effort, during which the Persian people, with all their difficulties and harassed by the so-called friendly powers, succeeded in thwarting a despot’s well-planned effort to wrest from them their hard-earned liberties, the world is told by two European nations that these men were unfit, dangerous and incapable of producing a stable and orderly form of government.5

This was the judgment of an American in 1912, just before the disasters that befell Iran during World War I—before the British attempt to turn Iran into a semi-protectorate in 1919, and years before the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II, before the brazen Soviet attempt to snatch away Iran’s territory and subvert its government, and before Shuster’s own country conspired in 1953 with Britain to deprive Iran of economic sovereignty over its natural resources and its democratic aspirations. It sounds almost prophetic that he concluded that Iran “was the hapless victim of the wretched game of cards which a few European powers, with the skill of centuries of practice, still play with weaker nations as the stake, and the lives, honor and progress of whole races as the forfeit.”6

Shuster’s was not the only voice outside Iran that supported the Constitutional Revolution. The most courageous and consistent, perhaps, was that of the celebrated English scholar of Iran Edward Granville Browne (1862–1926). From the outset of the movement, Browne lent his moral support through correspondence with major constitutionalist players and sympathetic British diplomats in Iran. He also organized the Iran Committee in the United Kingdom in support of the revolution, sought out other voices of support in the West, responded to vicious attacks on the constitutionalists in the British press, and provided an updated narrative of the revolution in Iran as it unfolded. Browne’s The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909, published in 1910 was a remarkable work of contemporary history based on his published pamphlets and tracts, his correspondence, and his investigative scholarship. It offered the English reader an inside view of the revolution, distinct for its direct conveyance of the ideas and feelings of the Iranians, the dilemmas and obstacles they were facing, and the prospects of their revolution, as was visible by the middle of 1909.

Almost an instantaneous classic, Browne’s account questioned not only the imperialist biases of his own time but also the validity of the all-embracing critiques of Orientalism and the common assumption that Orientalists invariably were pioneers of imperial hegemony. Though Browne, like most scholars of his generation, was enamored of a romantic vision of the East, his Persian Revolution was an anti-imperialist project that helped define the mashruteh as an authentic voice of protest against domestic oppression and foreign intrusion. That on the cover of his book was embossed the Persian phrase “Long live the Iranian Constitutional Revolution” (payandeh-bad mashruteh-e Iran) displayed the author’s sympathies for the Iranian cause. It also denoted his role in “representing,” free of a nefarious motive, the Iranian voice against crimes committed by the great powers in Iran, even though he, and a small group of like-minded liberals, failed to change the course of British foreign policy. Yet his Persian Revolution was an enduring narrative for the Iranian revolution, one that for decades defined its forerunners, heroes, and villains.


‘Aref’s song about Shuster was part of the poetry of dissent that found expression during the Constitutional Revolution. In what might be called the poetic space, Iranians often questioned the prevailing political and religious values of their society and condemned hypocrisy, greed, and violence. With the coming of the Constitutional Revolution, the press and publications offered a new generation of poets and intellectuals a chance to free themselves from the patronage of the Qajar court and nobility and compose work in a language accessible to ordinary people. Using classical Persian forms and images, the host of poets of the period went beyond political discourse to appeal to their audiences not only through press and publications but also through musical concerts, performances, and especially the medium of popular songs (tasnif).

The message of the new poetry engaged with the revolutionary aspirations and agonies. While still loyal to such themes of classical poetry as pantheistic gazing at nature, longing for the beloved, expressing nostalgia for bygone times, and despairing over the loss of youth, the poets of the period also bemoaned the ruination of the motherland and its loss to hostile and covetous foreign powers. The glorious days of Iran’s ancient past versus the cruel tyranny of its present, the grip of the greedy and corrupt elite on the people, the ignorance and bigotry of clerical leaders, the destitution and starvation, and the dark destiny that awaited Iran’s immediate future were also common themes. Aspirations for progress, prosperity, and social justice were also present; they were goals that were achievable, it was thought, through mass education, modern sciences, technology, hard work, and the abandonment of past biases. Over time such hopes turned to despair as postrevolutionary Iran plunged further into political disorder and was subjected to foreign occupation. Visitation of deadly disease outbreaks, mass famine, and destitution of the multitudes were other reasons to mourn the fate of the nation. By the end of World War I, the Iranian intelligentsia, among them a few modernist poets, wished that a savior would appear to rescue Iran and accomplish the objectives of the revolution, even at the expense of forgoing the luxury of constitutional democracy.

Of seven major poets of the period, the most distinguished in poetic excellence and clarity of social message is perhaps Mohammad Taqi Bahar (1884–1951), who was then at the beginning of a long and eventful political, journalistic, and scholarly career. Born in Mashhad to a literary family, he inherited from his father the title of the poet laureate (malek al-sho‘ara) of the shrine of the Eighth Imam. He soon turned to journalism and revolutionary poetry in his hometown, before moving to Tehran in 1912. In a famous poem in the mostazad style titled “It Is From Us What Befalls Us” (Az mast keh bar mast), composed in the same year, Bahar makes a dramatic call for self-criticism, a call that touches on issues typical of the intellectuals of the period:

The black smoke that arises from the roof of the motherland,

It is from us what befalls us.

The burning flames that flare from left and right,

It is from us what befalls us.

Even if we are at our last gasp, we should not complain of the stranger,

We shan’t quarrel with the other.

But complain of ourselves, this is the core of the matter.

It is from us what befalls us. . . .

We are that old plane tree who does not complain of the storm,

But grows on the soil.

What can we do? Our fire is in our belly,

It is from us what befalls us. . . .

Ten years were wasted in disputation in the madrasa,

While staying awake all night.

Today we see that all was a riddle.

It is from us what befalls us.

We claim we are awake now, what an illusion!

What is our wakefulness,

But that of an infant who needs a lullaby?

It is from us what befalls us.

We detest history, geography, and chemistry.

We are alien to philosophy.

But every madrasa is clamoring with “he said” and “I say.”

They say Bahar is enamored of the West, body and soul,

Or he is a crusading infidel.

We do not dispute, for it is self-evident from this point:

It is from us what befalls us.7

At a time when the Majles closed under the Russian ultimatum and the constitution was suspended for the second time since its inception, Bahar evidently held the Iranian political left and the right, not the aggressive European powers, responsible for Iran’s plight. Typical of his time he represents the seemingly awakened Iranian nation as an infant who listens to childish lullabies rather than maturing with the study of humanities and sciences.

One of ‘Aref’s well-known tasnifs, composed on the occasion of the capture of Tehran by the nationalists and dedicated to Haydar Khan, reveals similar mournful pessimism even at the moment of victory. Two of many stanzas of this song, composed in the Dashti mode (one of the most sorrowful in the Persian dastgah musical system, often adopted from Iran’s pastoral melodies) are embedded in the Persian past but enriched by motifs of European romanticism in mournful memory of the fallen:

Of the blood of the youth of the motherland tulips bloomed.

Mourning their erect heights, cypresses bowed.

Under the shadow of the rosebush the nightingale crept.

Like me, the flower ripped apart in grief its shirt.

How cruel are the heavens, how deceitful, how vengeful.

The [Majles] deputies are asleep, the ministers corrupt.

All the gold and silver of Iran was robbed.

O God! Take the poor’s revenge from the powerful.

How cruel are the heavens, how deceitful, how vengeful.8

At about the same time, his disappointment with infighting among the Majles and its parties prompted ‘Aref to write an ode (ghazal) reflective of the suffocating anguish for the future of the revolutionary movement:

The cry of the captive bird is all for the motherland.

The conduct of the bird in the cage is like mine. . . .

Think of a remedy to save your liberty, O my compatriots,

For if you don’t, you are a captive like me.

A house that is to become prosperous in the hands of the aliens,

Sink that house in tears, for that is a house built on grief. . . .

It is better to put on women’s garb if the aliens arrive,

For there is no one more deprived in this country than women. . . .9

‘Aref’s own end was no less mournful than his poetry. At the time of his death in 1934, his passionate tone and often unrealistic, if not naive, aspirations for instantaneous democracy and freedom in his homeland had turned into an opiate melancholy. The orderly but autocratic Pahlavi rule no longer cared for him.

At a more popular level, the message of despair was blended with satire and put in a language more accessible to the people of the street. This is particularly evident in the poetry of Ashraf al-Din Qazvini (1870–1934), better known by his pen name and the title of his satirical journal, Nasim-e Shomal (Northern breeze). As the title implies, many of the themes in his poems, as well as style and subject matter, were inspired by journalistic trends from the Caucasus, and especially by the celebrated satirical journal Molla Nasr al-Din, published in Azarbaijani Turkish in Baku starting in 1906. Nasim-e Shomal successfully reinterpreted this satirical spirit for Persian tastes. In the thirty-five years of its irregular appearance since 1907, the modest but highly popular weekly, printed out of a small Jewish press in Tehran, reiterated in a lower register songs of nostalgia for Iran’s great past, lamenting its current ruination, ignorance, and poverty. Edward Browne’s rhymed rendering of the Nasim-e Shomal piece attacking Mohammad ‘Ali Shah just before the 1908 coup is one example:

Vainly our lives to hardship we expose,

While in each heart the fire of hatred glows:

For while the nation doth the shah oppose,

And while the shah supports the nation’s foes,

And while reaction dominates the state,

Needs must our caravan be lame and late!

We say that now at last the press is free,

That Persia shall regain prosperity,

That firmly based is now our liberty,

That colleges abound increasingly,

Bottles and stone best typify our state!

Needs must our caravan be lame and late!

An ass becomes our arbiter supreme,

A dog controls each project and each scheme,

A fox the object of respect doth seem,

Shapshal [the shah’s Russian tutor] a trusty treasurer we deem:

What pawn can move to save the king from mate?

Needs must our caravan be lame and late!10

The prose satire of the period was no less forgiving of Iran’s failings. The most remarkable, the column “Charad Parand” (Charivari) in Sur-e Esrafil, written by the aforementioned Dehkhoda, produced a penetrating and stylistically sophisticated scrutiny of the values and practices of society at this eventful time. Born in Qazvin to a family of small landowners, Dehkhoda’s agrarian background, early madrasa education, and short diplomatic career in the Balkans turned him into one of the best critics of his generation. With an alternative satirical pen name Dakhow (“headman,” in the Qazvini dialect), Dehkhoda’s intimate tone and simple but piercing logic, published in thirty-two issues of the journal between May 1907 and July 1908, lampooned the conservative and sneered at the court and corrupt nobility while highlighting the suffering of ordinary people and the misfortunes of the downtrodden: hungry peasants, broken artisans, oppressed women, and a host of imagined character types who appeared as the author’s alter ego. It was partly because of Dehkhoda’s contribution that Sur-e Esrafil reached its widest circulation of twenty-four thousand in 1908.

In the first issue, the author employs an ingenious cure for the acute problem of opium addiction in Iran to remedy problems of adulterated bread flour and health care for the poor. Browne’s excellent translation of a short passage displays the novelty of style and content:

After several years traveling in India, seeing the invisible saints and acquiring skills in Alchemy, Talismans, and Necromancy, thank God, I have succeeded in a great experiment; no less than a method for curing the opium habit. . . . To all my zealous, opium addict Muslim brethren I now proclaim the possibility of breaking the opium habit thus: first, they must be firmly determined and resolved on abandoning it. Second, one who, for example, eats two methqals [nine grams] of opium daily should every day diminish this dose by a grain and add two grains of morphine in its stead. One who smokes ten methqals of opium should daily reduce the amount by one grain adding instead two grains of hashish. Thus they should persevere until such time as the two methqals of opium which he eats are replaced by four methqals of morphine.

By the same logic he then proposes to Iran’s statesmen that, since “people are poor and cannot eat wheaten bread, and that the peasant must spend all his life in cultivating wheat yet must himself remain hungry,” they should consider the following:

On the first day of the year they bake the bread with pure wheat flour. On the second day in every hundredweight they put a mound of bitter apricot stones, barley, fennel flower, sawdust, lucerne, sand—I put it shortly as an illustration—clods, brickbats, and bullets of eight mithqals. It is evident that in hundredweight of corn, which is a hundred mound, one mound of these things will not be noticed. On the second day two mounds, on the third three, and after a hundredth day . . . in such fashion no one will notice it, while the wheat breads habit has entirely passed out of men’s minds.11

After the coup of 1908 and the execution of Jahangir Khan Shirazi, the editor of Sur-e Esrafil, Dehkhoda escaped to Switzerland but returned after the constitutional restoration to begin a scholarly career as Iran’s greatest modern lexicographer. Like Bahar, he preferred to stay out of politics and alternatively to pursue language and literature as expressions of Iranian national identity.


Poetry, satire, music, journalism, and later literary studies and lexicography, remarkable though they were in defining the national culture of the period, could not fill the visible lacuna in the theoretical grounding of the constitutional order. Throughout, there was precious little articulation of political thought: democratic rule versus despotism, civil and human rights versus power of the state, legislated human law versus the primacy of divine law, and secular values of the emerging society versus requirements of the shari‘a. The paucity is all the more puzzling given Iran’s tradition of Islamic philosophy and its grounding in Platonic and Aristotelian thought (to the extent they were selectively known through classical Arabic translations). Moreover, Iranians had long produced in the genre of “mirrors,” advising rulers on the theory and practice of government. Most cursory references to such theoretical concerns, often by political activists, were to be found in musing of such writers as Malkom Khan and ‘Abd al-Rahim Talibov Tabrizi (1834–1911), works that even at the time of the Constitutional Revolution were not widely available in print.

In part, such disinterest toward modern political philosophy can be attributed to the petrified scholastic tradition, which had prevailed since the late seventeenth century, especially in Isfahan, where students of Mulla Sadra abandoned the pursuit of political philosophy and hindered any potential for an indigenous alternative thought such as the one that flickered on the speculative horizon of their teacher. In trembling fear of jurists’ censure, most philosophers of the Qajar period and the constitutional era avoided engaging, even on their own terms, with notions conducive to individual rights, toleration, and social contracts. Nor were there the forum or the patronage to translate, articulate, and indigenize such notions from European sources. Constitutionalism and its corollaries thus were seen as commodities to be imported and implemented, often regardless of their theoretical underpinnings.

Even before the raging debate over the legitimacy of constitutionalism, its protagonists were anxious to define it as a notion that concerned only the sphere of government and the restriction of the authority of the ruler, while in reality the adopted constitution reached beyond the political sphere into areas that traditionally were claimed by shari‘a. Constitutionalists insisted that reforms to the institutions of the state would in no way interfere with Islamic principals and the requirements of the shari‘a, and they repeatedly claimed that mashruteh was concomitant with the teachings of Islam and its true spirit. They dismissed anticonstitutional attacks of jurists like Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri as merely shortsighted and based on intraclerical rivalries.

Whatever the sincerity of such interpretations and its necessity so as to ward off the clerical cudgel of heresy, there was little effort in earnest to articulate theoretical boundaries of liberal democracy. In other words, Islam as a comprehensive divine order with claims over the individual, the government, and the community was never seriously dealt with in the constitutional period, nor was an effort made to spell out a workable compromise. At the time, constitutionalists did not see any urgency for speculative debates, nor could they see a paradox in complying with Islam as a comprehensive social order on the one hand and advocating secular modernity on the other.

A notable exception, however, was Mohammad Hosain Na’ini (1860–1936), a high-ranking jurist then residing in Najaf. During 1908, while the civil war was raging in his homeland, Na’ini argued in his book Tanbih al-Umma wa Tanzih al-Milla (Alerting the community and purifying the nation)which was written in relatively accessible Persian, a rarity among jurists at the time—that constitutionalism is compatible with the teachings of Shi‘i Islam. He argued that in the absence of the just and equitable rule of the Imam of the Age, constitutionalism is the lesser of the evils and the most viable alternative to autocratic rule, despite its shortcomings. The deputies of the Majles, he proposed, collectively represented an institution that in the absence of the Imam could attend to “public affairs” so long as they acted under the supervision of the mojtaheds.

Despite this notable point of departure, largely in response to Nuri and opponents of the Majles, neither Na’ini or anyone else was willing to acknowledge such issues as inequalities of Muslims and non-Muslims, limitations on freedom of speech and association, gender inequality, slavery, torture, and intolerance toward nonbelievers. These stood in contrast to requisites for developing a tolerant, pluralistic, and inclusive society. Nor was there even the desire to articulate against the largely nonhistorical assumption that the shari‘a held comprehensive sway over all affairs of society and the state. Ironically, with the relative growth of secular society in Iran after 1909, even Na’ini retracted his earlier assertions and attempted to remove his published work from circulation. Like most mojtaheds, he retreated back to the traditional jurist’s niche, recognizing, at times explicitly, monarchical autocracy as a necessary evil that was complementary to the jurists’ supervision of the shari‘a sphere. This, in essence, was what Nuri advocated, at least toward the end of his anticonstitutional struggle.

Translations and adaptations of Western works of political philosophy, published in Persian before and during the Constitutional Revolution, came to substitute for the paucity of a robust theoretical discourse and helped shape the ideology and rhetoric of the revolution. One example was the translation of ‘Abd al-Rahman Kawakebi’s Tiba’i‘ al-istibdad wa masarih al-istib‘ad (Modes of despotism and stages of exclusion), an Arabic rendering of a Turkish translation of Vittorio Alfieri’s Della tirannide published in 1800, which itself was a summary of Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois. Translated into Persian under the same title by the liberal Qajar prince ‘Abd-al-Hosain Mirza and published in Tehran in 1908, it was instrumental in defining despotism and articulating the claims of constitutionalism.


It is perhaps in this inadequate theoretical grounding of constitutional ideals that we should seek at least a partial answer to the Constitutional Revolution’s political setbacks. Despite staging an earnest liberal movement with urban support, the Iranian constitutionalists never really succeeded in defining the relationship between the religious and the political spheres. Nor did the geopolitical contingencies of European powers allow for the natural growth and fruition of this experience. From the outset, the Constitutional Revolution faced not only opposition from the Qajar regime and the affiliated clerical conservatives but also the growing hostility of the great powers, which together eventually brought the movement to a standstill. The predominance of the Qajar nobility, though shaken, by no means was purged. Domestic unrest, the inertia of the landowning elite who controlled the institutions of the state, and mere inexperience also bear a share of the blame (fig. 6.12). The all-embracing assault of these hostile forces demonstrates why the experience of modernity in Iran, and the rest of the Middle East, proved lopsided and inconsistent, and why Iran would witness two other major political upheavals in the course of the twentieth century.

Yet it is wrong to view the Constitutional Revolution as an outright failure, as some do. Iran in 1914 was fundamentally different from Iran of 1905. In less than a decade not only were the two pillars of the old order, the Qajar monarchy and the mojtahed establishment, weakened; the revolution had also managed to remove important barriers to social and cultural change. The modernizing project of the early Pahlavi era was the legacy of the Constitutional Revolution. State centralization; an integrated army; reforms in finances, civil and penal codes, and modern public education; and road and rail communication all grew out of the debates of the constitutional period and lingered in the aims and aspirations of that era. Despite undeniable abuses of political power during the Pahlavi era, especially involving the royal court and its affiliates, notions of law and order and due process remained in place and shaped the everyday life of ordinary citizens.

Figure 6.12. The Qajar establishment weathering the revolution. Just after the July 1909 constitutionalist victory, the Qajar regent, ‘Azod al-Molk, together with officials, prince-governors, landowners, and a chief of the Bakhtiyari tribe posed for the camera. Prince ‘Ayn al-Dowleh (second from right) commanded the Qajar forces that fought against the Tabriz revolutionaries.

Contemporary photograph, Tehran, Iran, c. 1911. Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Photo Gallery.

The ideology of Iranian nationalism and its historical narrative, moreover, was nurtured during the constitutional period. Notions of patriotism and love for the motherland (mihan) were incorporated into the discourse of the revolution, and especially after 1909 frequent usage of national(melli) and nationalists (melliyn) anticipated the nationalist ideology of the Pahlavi era. Most statesmen who saw through the reforms of the postconstitutional era, including Reza Shah himself, were shaped by the experience of the revolution and burned by its political setbacks. Indeed, it was the wholesale adoption of the nonpolitical objectives of the mashruteh, while also renouncing its liberal ideals, that bound these men together and gave them a sense of purpose. They saw their mission as the reconstruction of a new Iran through the alternative route of a strong state. In their view, this was the only way to save Iran from imperial hegemony, political chaos, and factional bickering, and the best strategy to project a vision of stability, prosperity, and power.

By no means, however, did all involved share this vision of progress. The journey from the tumultuous liberal experience of the constitutional period to the positivist but rough-and-ready autocracy of the Pahlavi era had to travel a rugged path that took Iran through even darker days of more foreign occupation, regional rebellion, starvation, disease, and loss of life during and after World War I. War had raised Iranian nationalists’ hopes but also left bitter memories in the hearts and minds of many who felt robbed of the true constitutional legacy or of the true values of Islam. They saw themselves as victims not only of the onslaught of foreign powers but also of the betrayal of the constitutionalists, and later of the brute power of Reza Khan. He was seen as a usurper who had come to power on the backs of British occupiers and with the help of a privileged elite. It was these memories that were to haunt many generations of Iranians, both secular and religious, for decades to come. For some, the experience of the Constitutional Revolution proved that Western powers would not allow the establishment of a free and democratic regime and that domestic political players were incapable of maintaining it. For others, the mashruteh liberal democracy was an imported commodity, even an “ailment” devoid of imagined “authenticity.”

The memory of the Constitutional Revolution, lingering in journals and memoirs of participants and eyewitnesses, later was reconstructed as a narrative of national resistance. In the 1940s and 1950s the Allied forces’ occupation of Iran and subsequently the oil nationalization movement persuaded Iranian political players and observers to view their own national aspirations and the foreign intrusions as continuation of the constitutional struggle. The parallels were indeed striking, even if the agents and players were not all the same. Mohammad Mosaddeq, the champion of oil nationalization, was a member of the late Qajar elite whose worldview and ideals were largely shaped by the Constitutional Revolution and its prescribed parliamentary process. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Islamic government under the “Guardianship of the Jurist” was a clear rejection of the secular liberalism of the constitutional period, and more along the lines first preached by Fazlollah Nuri and supporters of the mashru‘eh. Attempts to materialize this alternative vision transformed Iran in directions strikingly different from the constitutional experience, yet it still left Iranians grappling with issues of democracy, national identity, and geopolitics as during the Constitutional Revolution.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!