The Shah Destroyed Our Constitution and Established Brutal Tyranny

Excerpts from Habib Ladjevardi, “The Origins of U.S. Support for an Autocratic Iran

International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 225-239

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How Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Destroyed Our Constitution and Established Brutal Tyranny

According to Article 44 of the Fundamental Laws: “The person of the shah is exempted from responsibility. The ministers of state are responsible to the Majlis in all affairs.” Article 66 made the relationship of the monarch and cabinet ministers even more explicit. It stated: “The ministers cannot use verbal or written orders of the shah to divest themselves of responsibility.”

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s attacks on our Constitution:


As far back as December 1942, slightly over a year after taking the throne, the shah-then only 23 years old-had urged Prime Minister Qavam to resign and place the government under the military-over which the monarch already had some influence. Qavam, however, supported by the British Minister Sir Reader Bullard,7 had repelled the shah’s first attempt “to dominate the government through his own trusted supporters (acting) as ministers.”8


The monarch was not about to abandon his dream of continuing in his father’s footsteps. In July 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) told Washington that the shah had been energetically, though cautiously, strengthening ties with the officers of the army.9 In August, the same source reported that the shah had succeeded in taking control of the army. Although a high level commission had concluded that under Iran’s constitution, the General Staff was subordinate to the minister of war (and thus under the control of the prime minister), the shah had refused to sign regulations implementing this decision. Instead the shah had ordered the minister of war to tell the press and the Majlis that he (the minister of war) was fully responsible for the army and the General Staff.’?


By September 1943, the monarch was issuing orders directly to the General Staff, thus undermining the constitutional authority of the minister of war.” He justified this seizure of executive powers by contending that constitutional government was premature for Iran. In December 1944, the shah had said to the visiting Averell Harriman: “The country could not be truly democratic, which he desired, until the people had acquired sufficient education to understand the principle of democratic government and be able to form intelligent individual opinion.”’12  context of the period

Still, in 1941 after sixteen years of absolute rule by Reza Shah, a large number of middle- and working-class Iranians were unwilling to easily surrender their newly found political freedoms. Workers in most factories and civil servants in the central government, for instance, had formed their own trade unions. Wages had been increased as a result of unionization. Workers discharged without cause could appeal their case through their union, the press, and even the Grievance Committee of the Majlis.’5 Consequently the shah may not have succeeded in seizing greater power without the support of the two Western powers who (with the departure of Soviet troops) were able to wield considerable influence in Iranian affairs by the summer of 1946.


According to the U.S. military attache in Tehran, a major advocate of United States involvement in Iranian affairs was the shah, whom he described as “extremely pro-American, even to the extent of urging . . . the United States to accept a valuable oil concession.”27 In return the shah wished to be fully supported by the United States in his quest for absolute power. Reportedly the monarch had told Allen: “The Iranian people had not reached the stage where the king could only be a symbol. If he continued to exercise no substantive authority in Iranian affairs, the people would become unaware, after a time, of the value of a monarchy and unappreciative of the needs thereafter.”28 Ambassador Allen initially turned down the shah’s proposal to strengthen the court by reducing the constitutional powers of the prime minister. In the words of Allen: “I was not confident the shah was strong enough to succeed, did not think a king should be meddling in politics anyway, and was not certain where he would stop if he did succeed in whatever actions he might attempt. 29

In May 1946, Allen considered Prime Minister Qavam better equipped to achieve the main objective of the United States in Iran, which was “to prevent one more country from falling completely into the Moscow orbit.”30 In the American ambassador’s view, Qavam was “the most energetic and forceful man on the scene in Iran at the present time. If anyone can steer this ship of state through the dangerous waters it is now traversing, Qavam is the most likely instrument for the purpose.”31

Consequently (as Allen reported it later to the State Department), on October 14, 1946, [U.S.] Ambassador Allen told the shah that he had “finally reached the conclusion that he [the shah] should force Qavam out and should make him leave the country or put him in jail if he caused trouble.”37

Thus, the American ambassador in pursuit of his own country’s interests and perhaps in his perception of what was best for Iran, delivered a devastating blow to Iran’s infant constitutional government-a blow from which Iran has not yet recovered. Qavam himself unwittingly helped bring about his own doom. Having decided to delay elections for the XVth Majlis, Iran was without a parliament after March 1946. Consequently, Qavam was unable to enlist the support of the legislature, and through it the public, to prevent the shah’s take-over of the executive branch. Under threat of arrest, Qavam succumbed to the shah and replaced six members of his cabinet with men more acceptable to the shah.44 Qavam’s purge of his cabinet, which took place on October 16th, was correctly described by Ambassador Allen as “the turning point in Iranian history.” This event alone, obviously, did not put an end to constitutional monarchy. Iran’s return to autocracy was accomplished in stages. Within a period of two and one-half years-beginning with October 16, 1946-three different Western ambassadors gleefully referred to three specific instances of usurpation of power by the shah as “historical.”


The second “historical” advance toward one-man rule occurred in December 1947. By that time Russian troops had been pressured out of Iran by the United States and the United Nations, the province of Azarbaijan had been brought back under central government authority (as a result of the joint effort of the shah and Qavam), the Tudeh party was put in disarray, the XVth Majlis (with a few exceptions) was packed with members of the so-called thousand families, and the Soviet oil concession had been rejected by the Majlis.45 It was at this juncture that the two Western ambassadors finally agreed with the shah’s long-standing desire to discharge Prime Minister Qavam, who now seemed expendable.46 Using as a pretext an allegedly veiled criticism of himself by Qavam, the shah let it be known that continuation of Qavam’s cabinet was intolerable. As a result on December 4, 1947, all members of the cabinet (except two who were absent from Tehran) resigned, leaving Qavam totally isolated.

Following the resignation of the cabinet, the XVth Majlis, dominated by the supporters of status quo, gave the prime minister a vote of no confidence.47 He was not only relieved of his duties, but was also refused the diplomatic passport normally granted to former officials. Instead, Qavam, the most powerful man in Iran only a year and a-half earlier, was allowed to leave the country on an ordinary passport.48 This was the first demonstration of the shah’s ability to out-maneuver and defeat his potential rivals-even Qavam, the highly experienced Iranian politician under whom the shah’s own father had once served. This was not an ordinary change of cabinet. Clearly, the shah had acted after securing the blessings of the British as well as the American ambassador. British dispatches mention that their ambassador, John Le Rougetel, had discussed the removal of Qavam with the shah on November 12, 1947.49 The tone of the following passage from the American ambassador’s report indicates that he too was sympathetic with the move:

Thus December 1947 marked the second “historical” event that propelled Iran toward autocracy. In the words of the British ambassador: The fall of Qavam seems likely to mark the end of a phase in the development of Persian politics. Earlier in the year there had already been signs of increased political activity by the court. The shah had felt, since December 1946 (when the central government took control of Azarbaijan),t hat too much credit had been given Qavam and insufficientt o himself…

A most surprising aspect of the diplomatic records consulted was that neither the State Department nor the Foreign Office was under any illusions as to the consequences of reestablishing one-man rule in Iran.52 Ambassador Le Rougetel correctly predicted in December 1947 that henceforth the shah would exert a direct and increasing influence, backed by the military authorities, in the government of the country.53 In the United States, the decision to support an autocratic monarchy was preceded by a vigorous debate within the State Department. Some officials argued that an increase of power by the shah “might not be a bad thing since strong governments in countries bordering the Soviet Union have generally been better able to resist Soviet domination.”

Time and again when the shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as “non-interference.” The position of the Foreign Office was similar. On November 1, 1947, the shah had solicited the British ambassador’s advice regarding changes in the constitution.57 After much discussion with the Foreign Office, Ambassador Le Rougetel concurred that the composition of the XVth Majlis made it virtually impossible for the shah’s government to reform the administration or to enact a constructive economic policy.58 No reference was made, however, to the fact that only a few weeks earlier the same Majlis had demonstrated its willingness to collaborate with the shah by deposing Prime Minister Qavam, who was the founder and leader of the political party through which most of the deputies had entered the Majlis. 


The third step toward the reestablishment of autocracy was taken in April 1949, when a constitutional assembly was hastily and undemocratically convened and the constitution amended to grant greater power to the shah. The assembly was precipitated, in part, by an assassination attempt on the shah two months earlier.

Confirming the forecast of Ambassador Wiley that henceforth “the shah will rule and not merely reign, the monarch reduced the powers of the prime minister further by personally presiding over cabinet meetings. Wiley, reporting on his conversation with a former Iranian prime minister, stated that the shah was dedicating himself to the minutiae of administration. n even the smallest detail he was communicating directive, even to section heads. He was . . . wasting his energy and time and undermining government coordination.The worst phase of the situation, according to [former Prime Minister] Ali Mansur, was the fact that the shah was so badly entoure. He was surrounded by sycophantic advisors who were constantly urging [upon] him the necessity of increasing his royal prerogatives, exercising authority and ruling in the pattern of his late father. He had been given the concept of regal strength on a basis of weakness of the government; namely, that the shah would be strong in the measure in which the government would be weak….


Having revised the constitution in his favor and taken direct command of the executive branch, the shah focused his attention on the legislative branch, with the intent of making it completely dependent upon himself. In September 1949, the U.S. ambassador reported that the shah had cast aside his plans for free elections for the XVlth Majlis because he believed that: corrupt and venal political influences were effectively working to take improper advantage of free elections. The shah was now convinced that with the great illiteracy among and backwardness of the great mass of Iranian people any application of electoral principles of Western democracies would be premature and bad. His Imperial Majesty63 was determined to have a Majlis with which he could work in harmony. He intended moreover to make considerable reforms of governmental structure but he wanted me to be completely assured that he had no idea whatsoever of setting up a dictatorship.64


Despite his assurances to Ambassador Wiley, the shah was indeed bent on setting up a dictatorship. Gradually he removed all semblance of independence from the Majlis, the judiciary, the press, political parties, trade unions, universities, professional associations, and even the chambers of commerce. Thus no institution or public figure remained who could question his decisions and actions. One would have thought Great Britain and the United States, being themselves democracies, would have expressed sympathy for constitutional government in Iran. But they decided that a “stable autocratic monarchy” better protected their interests in Iran than an “unstable constitutional monarchy.”

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