The Iranian constitutional revolution was lead by a few intellectuals who were inspired by the Western ideals of liberty and equality. The English had one in the seventeenth century, which ultimately turned their kings into figureheads and the country as lead by an elected parliament. Both the French and the Americans went even further in the eighteenth century, abolishing the royalty and instituting Roman-inspired republics. There were two triggers to the constitutional uprising in Persia; firstly, the exorbitantly higher costs of consumer goods, due to the increased tariffs and levies. Secondly, shockwaves of the Russian revolution of 1905 at the news of Japan’s unbelievable victory over the Tsar’s navy.
After a year of struggles, in 1906, Mozafar-al-din Shah agreed to the establishment of a parliament, where people’s representatives could assemble and pass laws for a democratic Persia. The first act of Majles was a European style constitution that was approved by the compromising Shah, days before his passing. However, the new king (Mohammad-Ali) was strongly opposed to any liberal restrictions over his absolute power, and conspired to use the religious Shia sentiments against the new parliament. Shah’s strongest ally was a lead cleric (Sheik Fazlollah Norrie) who despised the free-thinking constitutionalists. Clergies like Norrie believed that the laypeople of Persia were not even capable of properly washing their hands without specific instructions from a Marjah mullah, let alone passing laws!
In the summer of 1908, Shah’s Cossack brigade invaded the parliament, jailed all the deputies and murdered the liberal leaders. Similar attacks decimated the ranks of libertarians all over the country, except for Tabriz where a small-scale armed resistance grew into a full fledged uprising. The Tabriz uprising was aided by the armed revolutionaries from the neighbouring Russian territories (Baku and Armenia), and ignited similar rebellions in Rasht and Isfahan. The ensuing civil war ended when in the spring of 1909, the revolutionary forces captured Tehran, sent the murderous Shah to exile and unleashed revenge on the reactionaries like Norrie.
However, the victorious constitutionalists inherited a bankrupt country, which was not only one of the poorest in the world, but also highly indebted to Russia and Britain. All through the nineteenth century, those two colonial superpowers were engaged in a fierce competition (the Great Game) over dominance in Asia. The Great Game had bleed Persia but allowed the feeble Qajars to barely survive, as each side vied for their allegiance. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Russian animosity was replaced by a common fear of the newly rising powers of Europe (Germany) and Asia (Japan). In 1907, England and Russia had concluded a friendship pact, which also unceremoniously divided Persia into two separate spheres of influence. Russia was granted a de-facto control over all economical activities in the North, and Britain in the South. The newborn constitutional government in Tehran was helpless against that arrangement, because most of the country’s riches were already lost through concessions.
The new government’s bankruptcy also created animosity and fierce fighting among the once allied constitutionalists. The leftists (Democrats) who were inspired by the Russian socialists, wanted to radicalize the movement and confiscate land and riches from the princes, landlords and mullahs. The moderates were aiming at achieving modernization and improvement but, with no money in the coffers, could not affect any positive outcome.
The superpowers’ dominance in Iran was followed by outright occupation during the First World War. In effect, Persia became a protectorate of Russia and England, from 1912 to 1921. The level of misery and hardship during that decade is mindboggling and appalling. It is estimated that 20% of the total population (10 million) perished in civil wars (among Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Bakhtiari, Ghashghai, pro-Germans, pro-British, Arabs, Baluchi, etc.); fighting between the rival Ottomans and Russians, who used Northern Iran as their battle ground and source of supplies; and widespread famines and plagues that wiped-out entire towns and villages.
WWI killed tens of millions of people in Europe, and caused the collapse of the Russian and German empires. Russia soon turned into a communist country and Germany adopted Nazism. Britain emerged victor from the war, but so wounded and weak that London could not afford to maintain the Persian occupation all by herself. Iran was descending into chaos! The great rivalry between the two superpowers also restarted; with the Russian communists (Reds) becoming openly hostile to Britain and their counter-revolutionary allies (Whites). In 1921, the final collapse of the Whites culminated in a new power balance in the Persian arena.