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Musaddiq’s conception of constitutionalism
Based on his arguments before the court that tried him in 1953


Keyvan Tabari
September 14, 2006

September 17 (26 of Shahrivar) is when the deposition of Mohammad Musaddiq began for his trial after his overthrow in the year 1953. In the current centennial year of the 1906 Iranian Constitution, at the Conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies in London, I presented a summary of the attached paper on Musaddiq's conception of constitutionalism. I submit it herewith for publication in as an appropriate contemporary forum most accessible to interested readers and hospitable to interactive response >>> Full text with notes (PDF) (Word document)

This piece reflects the perspective of a lawyer on constitutional issues involved in treating the legacy of a singular person about whom nearly all have opinions. Controversies surrounding the life and myth of Musaddiq only highlight his immense significance, especially for secular liberal opposition in Iran. This is as true today as it has been since October 1944 when -by confronting the Soviet demand for an oil concession-Musaddiq first emerged as a rival to the then arguably dominant Tudeh Party in that domain. Yet, the contours of the constitutional system which Mosaddeq proposed remain blurred.

The 800 page records of the proceedings of the military court that tried him has provided me with the material for a rare opportunity to attempt a detailed investigation. I should add that this is just the beginning of a broader project, although a sequel of sort. You might have seen my previous paper on the Islamic Republic's Constitution, published in the March 2003 issue of International Sociology. Together with the present writing they are my initial steps in the virtually virgin field of the study of the constitutional law of Iran. You would kindly please forgive minor warps here, such as errant transliteration. Many thanks.

abstract: Mohammad Musaddiq’s views on constitutionalism in Iran are worthy of consideration for several reasons: he was the leader of the secular liberal movement National Front, he was a participant-observer from the very first parliament, the Majles, and he was, arguably, Iran's foremost constitutional lawyer. As Iranian constitutionalism was a young and evolving experiment, Musaddiq’s conception of it could have been expected to change over time. This proved especially true when he assumed the responsibilities of governance as Prime minister during the critical years of the nationalization of Iran's oil. The challenge of dealing with the competing centers of power would shape Musaddiq’s notion of what was practical under the existing constitutional monarchy in Iran. He had a unique opportunity to articulate his thoughts on this subject when forced to prepare for his trial a month after his overthrow in August 1953. In Musaddiq’s arguments before the court, as this paper will attempt to show, he addressed the core issues of Iran's constitutionalism comprising the roles of the monarch, the executive branch, representative assemblies, and direct channels for the exercise of popular sovereignty. What emerged as his prescription was a constitutional monarchy where the Shah would be a symbolic and ceremonial figure, the powerful Prime Minister and his cabinet would be accountable to the Majles, the Majles would be the ultimate locus of power, and the electorate would be well informed through the free exchange of diverse opinions and actively vigilant to keep the legislators responsive.

keywords: Iran* Musaddiq*Constitutional Law of Iran*1906 Constitution of Iran


In the hundred year history of Iran’s 1906 Constitution no person has expressed views on its meaning more comprehensive and consequential than Mohammad Musaddiq. This was in part due to his longevity as a particularly qualified participant-observer. The following is an attempt at a narrative of the pertinent points in Musaddiq’s life as he would have sketched it. (In a broader study, his critics’ views would have to be taken into account in equal detail as would such matters as Musaddiq’s statecraft and foreign policy when he was Prime Minister. These worthy subjects are, however, beyond the specific scope chosen for this study.)

When Musaddiq was about 25 years old, he was asked by the reigning monarch, Mohammad 'Ali Shah Qajar (1907-1909), to help resolve the "misunderstanding" between that absolutist king and Ayatollah Seyd Abdullah Behbahani, the leader of the Constitutionalists. Musaddiq explained to the Shah that Behbahani "has opened a shop (dukan) and sells a product which is Constitutionalism and people are buyers. If you sell the same product, his shop will be boarded up and not only his customers but customers of other shops will also come to you."  The Shah responded to Musaddiq's blunt comment with a descriptive colloquialism of his own: he said Musaddiq's "head exuded the odor of the green (political) stew (qurmeh sabzi).(1)"

Indeed, Musaddiq was himself in the Constitutionalist camp. He had joined two political groupings, jame'-yi adamiyat and majma-i ensaniyat (2) He had been elected to the First Majles as a deputy from the class of Notables (ayan) of Isfahan but his credentials were rejected as he was younger than the required age of thirty (3).

Isfahan chose Musaddiq in part because his wife was a land owner in that electoral district (4). Similarly, Mohammad Ali Shah's acquaintance with Musaddiq also spoke of his being closely related to the Qajar King through his mother. From his late father who belonged to Iran's premier Mandarin family, the Ashtiyanis, Musaddiq inherited his high position as the chief Tax Officer (mustawfi) of Khorasan at the ripe old age of 14 (5).

This privileged man was also exceptionally diligent. When Mohammad 'Ali Shah bombarded the Majles and brought Iran's Constitutionalism to a halt, Musaddiq left to study, first finance in Paris (1909-1910) and, after two years, law in Neuchatel, Switzerland (1910-1914). Upon graduation four years later, Musaddiq was so successful as a young apprentice lawyer, who even made appearances in Swiss courts (6) that he decided to make this his life career. A trip to Iran in 1914 and the impossibility of return during World War One postponed this plan (7). Instead, Musaddiq pursued scholarship and teaching in law in Iran.

What and where he taught and what he wrote were as solid a basis as any for making him a superb Iranian constitutional jurist.  His lectures in his class at Iran's sole modern school of law, The School of Political Science (madreseh-yi ulum-i siasi) were later published as Rules in Civil Courts (dastoor dar mahakem-i  huquqi) (8). His other books in this period included Extraterritoriality and Iran (capitulacion va iran), and Parliamentary Laws in Iran and Europe (huquq-i parlemany dar iran va urupa). (Afshar, 1986: 82-84) This is only a partial list; there were others (9).

There was no constitutional court in Iran. Instead, Musaddiq would show his talent in government service, especially as a deputy in the Majles which was the agency entrusted to interpret the Constitution. Before that, however, Musaddiq made another trip to Switzerland in 1919, as soon as the end of the WWI permitted. Musaddiq's hope of resuming his legal career in Switzerland was dashed as its residency requirement for citizenship had been increased to 10 years due to the influx of the War refugees. Musaddiq became a businessman instead. When he was called back to Iran in 1920, to assume the post of the Ministry of Justice (10), he accepted only so as to be able to organize his affairs for a permanent stay in Switzerland (11).

On his way to Tehran, however, the notables of the province of Fars chose Musaddiq as the replacement for his uncle, the departing Governor Abdulhusain Farmanfarma. It was in this post that Musaddiq took it upon himself to offer another piece of historic advice on a weighty matter of the State to the new Shah. When Ahmad Shah cabled to him the appointment of a new Prime Minister Seyd Zia Tabatab'i, Musaddiq chose not to publicize it and, instead, sought to change the Shah's mind (12) because, Musaddiq believed, Seyd Zia had been appointed under duress applied by the British (13). Musaddiq did not succeed, but Seyd Zia also failed in his attempt to arrest Musaddiq and soon his government fell (14).

Musaddiq did not return to Switzerland. He was appointed to several high government positions. As the Minister of Finance he pursued the modernization goal of Constitutionalism by drastic financial reforms (15). He gained further executive experience as the Governor of the Province of Azerbaijan (16), then Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs (17). These were short term assignments, each lasting a few months (18), but they established him as a popular candidate for the Majles from Tehran. Through the next two sessions of the Majles, the Fifth (1923-25) and the Sixth (1925-27), Musaddiq became a national figure.

Musaddiq soon made his mark on Iran's Constitutionalism in two events. When Ahmad Shah cabled the Majles, in April 1924, to dismiss the Prime Minister, Sarder Sepah (the future Reza Shah), Musaddiq played a key role as a member of a group of deputies who defied the Shah. They journeyed to the village of Boom-i Hen outside of Tehran where Sardar Sepah had retired and brought him back to the capital and power (19). About a year and half later, however, when the Majles was about to appoint Sardar Sepah the new Shah, Musaddiq was a leading deputy who opposed it, arguing in a landmark speech on October 31, 1925 that as a Shah, Sardar Sepah would be a dictator. (20)

Musaddiq later refused Reza Shah's offer to be his Prime Minister as he believed he would not have any independence (21). Upon the expiration of the Sixth Majles, Musaddiq had to go into internal exile for the next 14 years of Reza Shah's reign, and he was briefly jailed (22). He was completely shut out of public political discourse. The silence that Reza Shah's rule imposed on the outspoken and opinionated Musaddiq was unprecedented; but, the roar of his latent response would be heard (23).

After Reza Shah abdicated, Musaddiq was elected in 1943 as the first deputy from Tehran to the 14th Majles. This was considered to be the highest elective office in Iran.  Musaddiq's preeminence among the major surviving figures of the pre-Reza Shah era was due to several factors. Some luminaries (such as Hasan Taghizadeh) had been tainted with their association with Reza Shah, some (such as Seyd Zia) had the reputation of being too close to foreign powers, some (such as Ahmad Qavam) were believed feared by the new Shah, while others (such as Hussain Ala) were too closely associated with this king. This left only one person who could compete with Musaddiq for popular leadership: Hussain Pirnia (Mo'tamen al Molk), but he declined to become engaged in politics again (24). Unlike him, Musaddiq still had the proverbial fire in his belly (25).

Musaddiq's popularity was enhanced by the positions he took in the 14th Majles. He opposed the extraordinary powers given to American financial advisers (26), he relentlessly pursued major cases of embezzlement by high government officials (27), and he castigated Reza Shah's old associates for their wrongdoings at his behest. Musaddiq's major accomplishment, however, was denying the demand for an oil concession by the Soviet Union in October 1944, while using the context to open the struggle against the British oil concession in Iran. (28) Musaddiq valued his position in the Majles so much that he declined the offer to become Prime Minister (29) because he would not be promised return to his Majles seat after his fall (30).

Qavam, who became Prime Minister to suppress the Soviet-supported movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1946, assumed so much power that he controlled the elections to the 15th Majles. As they were not free, Musaddiq boycotted them (31). When the elections for the 16th Majles approached, in the fall of 1949, relations with the concessionaire British oil company had become the dominant issue. A small group of opposition deputies sought the leadership of Musaddiq as the only figure with the stature for the fight (32). Musaddiq agreed and led a sit in at the Royal Palace to demand that the pending elections be free. The twenty Deputies and journalists around Musaddiq who formed the steering committee for this activity became the leadership of the National Front (33).

As a loose association of liberal nationalists, the Front succeeded in electing 6 deputies from Tehran to the 16th Majles, including Musaddiq as the first deputy. This popular "Minority (aqaliyat)" faction in the parliament managed the fight against several unacceptable versions of the agreement with the British oil company. Led by Musaddiq's parliamentary maneuvers, it prevailed in passing the law for the nationalization of Iran's oil industry.  When Musaddiq was offered the position of Prime Minister on April 28, 1951 with the expectation that as usual he would decline it, he accepted it, in order to implement the oil nationalization law. The pressure of public opinion assured him the grudging cooperation of the Shah and the Majles (34). In the first year, Prime Minister Musaddiq concentrated on foreign policy with surprising success. In his second year, Musaddiq undertook to implement what he considered to be the domestic promises of the Constitution.

As his National Front competed for the same constituency of the politically aware urban segment of the population with the Communist Tudeh Party, Musaddiq drastically curtailed the Shah's authority, and obtained extraordinary powers from the Majles to enact immediately enforceable reform measures. When the Majles threatened to turn against him, Musaddiq moved to dissolve the Majles by a referendum, thus paving the way for the election of hopefully a friendlier new Majles.

Musaddiq's foreign adversaries never relented in their efforts to overthrow him through his domestic opponents (35). Tipped off by a phone call a few hours before, Musaddiq thwarted an attempted military coup by the Shah in the early hours of August 16, 195336, only to be faced by a better organized effort three days later >>> Full text with notes (PDF) (Word document)

Keyvan Tabari is an international lawyer in San Francisco. He holds a PhD and a JD, and has taught at Colby College, the University of Colorado, and the University of Tehran.

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