Iran Had an Earlier Brush with Democracy-- in 1906
by DR. LAINA FARHAT-HOLZMANJuly 15, 2013
The years 1905 and 1906 gave rise to two revolutions, Russian and Persian (today's Iran). Russia's 1905 revolution was harshly put down by the Tsar, but Iran's revolution succeeded in removing a bad Shah and opened Iran's first parliament---temporarily.
Because of Russia's disastrous performance in World War I, their second run at a revolution succeeded in 1917. Iran had a different outcome. Their 1906 revolution succeeded until 1911, when the Russians, with British collusion, invaded and returned Iran to its incompetent Qajar monarchy.
Iran was in terrible shape in 1906. It had been in terrible shape throughout the 19th century, thanks to a terrible dynasty that began with atrocities and ended with incompetence, a situation that provided opportunities for Tsarist Russia and Britain to interfere. The only reason great powers would even care about a backward Shiite Muslim country of only 10 million people was its geography; for the British, it was one of the roads to their Indian Empire and for the Russians, access to warm water ports. After 1906, they both had even more reason: the discovery of oil.
The Iranian 1906 revolution was an improbable miracle. In a predominantly backward and illiterate country, the number of "intellectuals" was very small. But even more curious, some of these intellectuals were actually Shiite clerics, younger ones who put nation before religion. Together, the clerics and the intellectuals (young aristocrats and educated children of the Merchant class), staged a revolution, wrote a constitution, and with the help of some of the tribal leaders (warlords like those in today's Afghanistan) deposed the Shah, replaced him with one of his young sons, still a child, and began the process of modernization.
The new guard found one major problem: the nation's tax-based treasury was empty. During the 19th century, when the Shah needed money, he sold all sorts of tax-raising utilities to the Tsar or the British, enabling all revenue from Post & Telegraph, new railroad system, and tobacco to go directly to Russia or Britain in repayment for the loan. The first sign of public resistance was a tobacco strike, an attempt to get the heavy-smoking Iranians to give up cigarettes.
By 1911, the revolutionary government was struggling with the empty treasury and decided that they needed western help. Since they trusted neither Russian nor British help, they contacted the United States, who sent an upright lawyer, civil servant, and publisher: William Morgan Shuster. He was immediately appointed Treasurer-General of Persia by the Parliament.
Shuster is still remembered in Iran as perhaps the first (and rare) honest official. When one royal prince tried to raid the treasury, he was rebuffed and publicly humiliated by Shuster. This was indeed something new, and gave great heart to the young constitutional government. But then, when Shuster order the Shah's brother to surrender government resources back to the treasury, the Prince (in the pay of Russia) refused, and the Russians, with British collusion, demanded the dismissal of Shuster.
The Parliament refused, and the Russians brought in troops and put an end to the young parliamentary government. The country was divided into two spheres of influence, the Russians had the north and the British the south, and during World War I, Iran almost disappeared from nationhood after 2500 years of existence. (See Shuster's The Strangling of Persia.)
They were saved after the war when a Russian-trained Persian officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi, began the process of turning miserable backward Persia into modernizing Iran. He created a modern army; the beginnings of an air force; suppressed the warlords (tribal chiefs); removed the judiciary and education from the clergy, replacing them with modern civil services; and negotiated with the British over the revenues from the new oil industry.
Under Reza Shah and his eldest son, the late Shah we all remember, Iran made up for 400 years of stagnation and misrule. Even the Ayatollahs, who would never admit it, would not have the country they do without the Pahlavis.
Iran has had---and lost---democracy before. Today, Iranians vote, but the Ayatollahs vet and veto. Happily, they walk on a razor's edge.