In the last century, three revolutions have taken place in Iran: the Constitutional Revolution, the petrol movement, and the Islamic revolution.
We can make a distinction between these revolutions based on their identities and directions. What were their slogans and their strategies? What was the role of clergymen? What was the role of intellectuals and parties? All these revolutions had some effects on our region. For instance, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, in his first book (which is about the movement of petrol in Iran) states that [Mohammed] Mossadeq’s movement had an effect on the Egyptian movement to nationalize the Suez Canal.
Iran’s parliament has played a significant role in these three revolutions. I would like to focus on the role of parliament over the last century, and the current political scene of Iran.
The Constitutional Revolution, the petrol movement, and the Islamic Revolution are linked to one another; and I can say that these were three significant stages of Iran’s contemporary history.
The focus of this article is on the history of thought, not to explain the adventures and events that took place. I consider parliament in Iran a very important institution, and getting to know the parliament can help us to analyze Iran’s affairs properly. Nowadays, Iran is on the verge of a parliamentary election, and thus we need to recognize the historical roots and the role of parliament in Iran.
Iran used to be governed by a monarchy. The king used to be the centre of the government and the country. It was believed that he was God’s representative on earth. After the Islamic revolution, as the minister of culture, I visited Casablanca, Morocco. We were hosted by Mr Ahmad Basri in his house. It was an absolutely unforgettable night; we started talking in the evening and didn’t stop until after midnight. Some writers and philosophers were also invited by Mr Basri.
As we spoke about the role of clergymen in the Islamic revolution of Iran, Basri said: “Prior to your revolution, I used to think that the clergymen were the representatives of God Almighty on Earth among the people, but after your revolution, when I read and studied the role of clergymen, I changed my mind; now I think that God is the representative of the almighty Ulama in heaven!”
Sometimes an ironic quote is more to the point than an entire book.
With regards to the Constitutional Revolution of Iran, Iranians concentrated on justice and the establishment of parliament. They used a very thoughtful term for parliament and demanded that it be called “Adalat-khaneh”, which means the house of justice. They sought to limit the absolute power of the king. Some researchers believe that the term Mashrouteh means the limitation of absolute power.
“Mashrouteh” (Constitution or Constitutional) has been confused with the word “mashroot” (conditional) due to their similarity; and at first glance, it implies a government that does not hold unconditional power. However, even the most despotic governments are bound to abide by written and unwritten laws and customs, which limit the power of a ruler (for example, the Salic Law, the succession of the first male progenitor to the throne). In the final analysis, even history’s most powerful dictators had to abide by the rules of “balance of power” and could not act in whichever way they wished.
The word ‘constitution’ found its way to the Persian political dictionary in the latter part of the 19th Century through the Ottomans who themselves had derived it from the French word ‘Chartre’ that was derived from the Latin word ‘Cartula’ or ‘Carta’.
‘Magna Carta,’ the first ‘constitutional law’ in the world limiting the power of kings, which was passed in the House of Lords in 1215 by the King of England, means the ‘Grand Board’. The Constitutional Law in its present form and meaning started with the American Revolution. Today, it exists in all countries. In the UK, the common law and existing legislature fulfill the same role as constitutional law in other countries and its government is indeed one of the most lawful in the world.
In Iran, the intellectuals, at that time, translated the term ‘constitutional government’ as ‘hokoomat e mashrouteh,’ a lawful government that derives its legitimacy from the popular will, versus a despotic monarchy. In the literature of that era of the constitutional movement, ‘mashrouteh’ and ‘constitution’ were both used in parallel. In a ‘government of law’ or ‘constitution’, the form of the government has no importance because both monarchical and republican forms are based on a parliamentary system.
Those intellectuals, as the first generation of Iranians exposed to western thought, decided to bring about a fundamental change within society, by establishing rule of law and freeing the country from the arbitrary powers of the king and the royal figures. Iran, at that time, was a country that was in total chaos, existing more as a geographic entity ─ no army, no finance, no communication or educational infrastructure to speak of ─ with a primitive rural economy and a mass of illiterate people living in unhealthy conditions. The role played by the then small Iranian middle class, which, single-handedly, took on the task of modernizing Iranian society, is unparalleled in our history.
The project devised by those intellectuals who were known as the Constitutionalists exceeded far beyond the formation of government alone. Rightly so, they gave priority to the political problem of Iran, but government reform was only the first step of an overall program to preserve the independence and integrity of the country and to push Iranian society onto the same level of the most advanced countries in the West. This is why the Constitutional Movement of Iran is known not only as a democratic revolution but also the beginning of the movement for modernity in Iran. For the Constitutionalists, there was no distinction between democracy and modernity. Democracy, like nationalism, social and economic development, and social justice, was simply one component of their project for modernizing the country. Their efforts in all aspects of that project reached an unprecedented level in Iranian society.
From 1941 [1320 Hijri (H)], many writers divided the era of the Constitutional Movement into three periods according to their own partisan and ideological preferences: Firstly, the ‘Mashrouteh’ of 1906 (1285H) to 1907 (1286 H) and the bombardment of the parliament building. Secondly, the ‘Mashrouteh’ of 1909 to 1921 (1288-1299 H) and the coup d’etat of 3 Esfand (1921, the rise of Reza Khan, later Reza Shah, to power.) Thirdly, the ‘Mashrouteh’ of 1941 to 1953 (1321-1333 H) and the fall of ‘Mossadegh’. These authors sum up the entire history of the Constitutional Movement as the periods of the parliamentary supremacy. According to them, ‘Mashrouteh’ or constitutionalism existed when parliament was able to exercise power. Reducing the modernization and reform movement in Iran to only one of its elements does not convey the real dimensions of the movement and the true role played by the parliament during most of its years in power. In reality, the period between the last decade until now should be known as the Constitutional or ‘Mashrouteh’ Era. During this period, the notion of modernization and development dominated the entire national discourse, transforming traditional Iranian society with its 1000-year-old beliefs to the extent that even current reactionary Islamic theocracy is nothing but a deviation of the movement and in certain fundamental fields, it is serving the objectives of the Constitutionalists.
Parliament was the principal achievement of the Constitutionalists. However, at the peak of its power, the parliament was not able to accomplish anything more than successfully resisting imperial expansion. After its second term and the amendment of the electoral law, major landlords in smaller cities controlled the election results. Thus, parliament did not truly represent the people and its power was indeed an obstacle to progress. In addition, during the years before the emergence of Reza Shah, Iran, as a country with a feudal system, was a disintegrating state with some of its provinces under foreign occupation. Even banks and custom houses were managed by expatriates and their respective governments.
During the first 15 years of ‘Mashrouteh,’ for most of the time, parliament was not even in session and the cabinets had an average lifespan of no more than two months and 23 days. In the years after the occupation of Iran, parliament did not fulfill its role any better. Most of the cabinets were short lived and the parliamentarians in general were only concerned with their personal interests and were ready to play into the hands of various powers. Even Mossadegh, who was critical of Reza Shah for bringing parliament under his control, called it “the house of thieves” and as a result of his hostility towards parliament, he went as far as dissolving the very parliament whose members were elected during his premiership, ignoring the constitution itself.
In addition to intellectuals, the clergymen played two different roles in Mashrouteh and in parliament as well. Some clergymen such as Ayatollah Tabatabaee and Ayatollah Behbahani supported the revolution. On the other hand, other clergymen such as Ayatollah Noori were against the revolution in support of the king. They claimed that the Mashrouteh conflicted with jurisprudence. They believed that Shariaa is derived from God’s will whilst Mashrouteh was based on human experience.
That confrontation was resolved through a unique solution as six well-known clergymen were appointed to approve the laws after being voted in by the MPs.
This kind of confrontation is still present in Iran. There are two schools of thought. The first group believes that everything must be based on Shariaa, while the second group believes that it should not go against Shariaa. Whilst one side represents wisdom, the other is representative of jurisprudence. Sheikh Fazlollah Noori symbolized Shariaa in the Mashrouteh and supported the cruel king, Mohammad Ali Shah.
After an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the Shah, and an equally unsuccessful coup attempt by the Shah, the Shah eventually executed a successful coup with the help of the Russian-led Cossack in June 1908. The Majlis (parliament) was closed and many popular nationalist leaders, especially those with more aggressive views, were arrested and executed.
The radical preacher, [Sayyid] Jamal al-Din Isfahani, was caught whilst trying to flee. Malik al Mutakallimin and the editor of Sur-e-Israfil, Mirza Jahangir Khan, were among those killed (The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol.7, p.205).
The bombardment of the Majlis by Russian soldiers was a clear sign that the despotic government did not agree to the Majlis and with the crucial role that it played in Iran.
The Constitutional government collapsed in 1911, and in 1921 Seyyed Zia’eddin Tabatabaee and Reza Khan organized a coup d’etat. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Iran.
Reza Shah did not believe in the role of parliament and used to brand it “a stable”.
The national dream of liberty and justice was sacrificed by the military regime. The dream turned to chaos and that was the last page of the Constitutional Revolution.
* Ataollah Mohajerani is the former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran