Limits of U.S. support for constitutionalism in Iran
By Charles Kurzman
April 19, 2000
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Iranian pro-democracy movement
looked to the United States for cooperation. The U.S. Congress laughed
at the constitutionalists' appeal. Are we witnessing a repeat of this scenario
in the early 21st century?
I'd like to make four brief points about the limits of U.S. support
for Iranian democracy in the early 20th century, then suggest how the U.S.
government might avoid a repeat of this sad history.
The Iranian pro-democracy movement looked to the U.S. as a model of
progressive education. The Iranians' model of a democratic uprising was
the French Revolution of 1789; their model of a democratic order was the
Belgian constitution of 1832 (which formed the template for the Iranian
constitution of 1906); their model of Asian industrial development was
Japan. But the U.S. seems to have been the Iranians' model of progressive
education. For example, in the newspaper Habl al-Matin (The Firm
Cord), a reformer praised science for having civilized "the savage
forest-dwellers of America."
Another reformer proposed in the Tabriz newspaper Anjoman that Iran
improve its public education, noting that "In American villages schools
have been opened, in the cities reading rooms and hospitals have been founded."
Ahmad Kasravi, another reformer from Tabriz, later recalled that "The
Americans' school in Tabriz, the Memorial School, held great esteem among
the freedom-seekers, because it was the only place where they could learn
the English language and European knowledge, and many of the enlightened
youths hung out there."
The U.S. was pleased with the emergence of democracy in Iran in 1906,
but skeptical about Iran's ability to make it work. In 1906, the Iranian
pro-democracy movement demanded and won the country's first-ever constitution,
parliament, and elections. Richmond Pearson, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran,
wrote to Washington on the occasion of the victory of constitutionalism
in August 1906:
"... the Shah has yielded and conceded [a] constitutional form
of government, including national legislative elective assembly. New methods,
new era. ... The further development of this struggle will naturally attract
the interest and sympathy of the friends of liberty throughout the world."
But the same document expresses the U.S. ambassador's skepticism about
the prospects for democracy in Iran:
"The impression is general among my colleagues [in the diplomatic
corps in Tehran] and in the best informed political circles that nothing
substantive and permanent will grow out of this sudden movement for reform.
... The great body of the Shah's subjects have no idea of the meaning of
'Constitutional Government,' [and] the Persian language contains no equivalent
for 'Constitution' as we understand the term."
This last bit was not exactly correct the Iranians had two new
terms for constitution, mashruteh "conditionality,"
borrowed from an Ottoman term and qanun-e asasi, or "Basic
Law." Keep in mind that Iranians were inventing and borrowing many
words in the early 20th century as the country opened up to international
trade and culture, and the lack of pre-existing words for telegraph (telegraf)
or automobile (mashin) or Ministry of Education (Vezarat-e `Olum),
for example, did not prevent the development of these things in Iran.
But it appears that Americans were willing to believe the worst about
Iranians. For example, John B. Jackson, the new U.S. ambassador, making
his way to Tehran in 1908, reported and apparently believed
this story of Iranian ignorance:
"On my arrival at Enzeli [an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea] I
was told the following story by the Mehmandar, my official host: A few
days before, a man in that city had been called to account by the authorities
for insulting a woman in the street, and in defence he had appealed to
the new Constitution. He asked to be informed as to what was meant by 'freedom
of speech' if he could not tell a person what he thought of him. Many similar
stories are current, with or without foundation, and they serve to show
how much is understood by the people of the real significance of a Constitution,
for which no Persian word existed and one had to be invented."
This diplomat representing a country that makes quite a big deal
about the freedom of speech apparently considered it outlandish for
an Iranian to make a free-speech claim, and shared the elitist assumption
of his aristocratic host, the Mehmandar, that Iranians were unfit for democracy.
Iran asked for, and the U.S. sent, a private citizen to serve as Iran's
Treasurer. A civil war raged in Iran in 1908-1909. A new shah had inherited
the throne the previous year and was not eager to share his power with
parliament. With Russian assistance, and the acquiescence of the British,
he shelled parliament, suspended the constitution, and tried to regain
absolute power. Only Tabriz, the provincial capital of the Azerbaijani
region in the northwest of Iran, managed to hold out against the shah's
coup. It was besieged by the shah's forces, in cahoots with Russian troops
and tribal brigands, and there was much loss of life, including that of
Howard Baskerville, a young American who had come to teach at the missionary
school in Tabriz.
Baskerville came to feel he could not teach about democracy if he was
not willing also to fight for it. Despite reprimands by the mission school
and the U.S. consul, he helped to organize a pro-democracy militia and
was shot dead while leading a charge against the reactionaries. Weeks later,
the pro-democracy forces managed to break out of the siege and march on
Tehran, joining up with other groups from around the country. They re-took
the capital in mid-1909 and re-established the constitutional government.
One of their first tasks was to put the country's finances on a solid
footing, since the government had no real system for raising taxes and
no real procedure for developing a budget. The Iranian parliament wanted
outside assistance for this job, and they asked the U.S. to nominate somebody
to set up an Iranian Treasury Department on modern lines. Why the U.S.?
Well, the Iranians didn't want one of the European Great Powers, for fear
that the position would give them too much influence. Other small countries
were running the Iran's Customs Service (the Belgians) and setting up its
Gendarmerie (the Swedes), and the U.S. was far enough away that the Iranians
felt it couldn't seriously threaten Iranian sovereignty.
Morgan Shuster, a Washington lawyer who had worked for American colonial
administrations in Cuba and the Philippines, was selected and approved
by the U.S. State Department in early 1911, and arrived in Iran on May
12, 1911. So, as odd as it may seem, the first modern-style Treasury Secretary
of Iran was an American! In six months, Shuster had started to build a
system for routinizing the finances of Iran and had become a hero to Iranian
supporters of democracy and still is. At the same time, he made a
lot of enemies, especially among the Russians, who preferred to keep Iran
weak so that it would be dependent on Russian loans.
The Russians managed to manufacture a series of crises in the fall of
1911 using pretexts so flimsy that even the Russian ambassador in
Tehran was embarrassed, as Russian documents demonstrate and issued
a series of ultimatums, the first of which was the firing of Morgan Shuster,
and the last of which was the shutting down of parliament. Lacking any
international support, Iran acquiesced in both of these demands in December
1911, ending the democratic interlude of the Constitutional Revolution.
Beyond nominating Shuster, the U.S. was not willing to go any further
in its support for Iranian democracy. Shuster was apoplectic about the
destruction of the democracy that he had come over to Iran to help build.
He wrote a heated article in The Times of London, then published his great
exposé, The Strangling of Persia, the very next year. And he was
even more outspoken in private as he tried to rally support for Iranian
democracy in private, writing in one letter:
"...I can assure you as a man that the spectacle now presented
to us here of the strangling of the national spirit of a people who have
lived for centuries under the most frightful despotism and tyranny, and
only recently have begun to enjoy even the sentiment of liberty, though
without many of its practical benefits, is a most sickening and melancholy
But the U.S. government did not share Shuster's commitment to democracy
in Iran. Through diplomatic channels, the U.S. government told the Russians
that it was "not at all interested in the fate of Shuster." Earlier,
during the civil war, when the U.S. consul in Tabriz asked whether American
missionaries should be allowed to shelter pro-democracy refugees who were
being hunted down by the reactionaries, the State Department cabled the
consul back the same day: "Neither you nor missionaries should extend
any asylum whatsoever."
In the final weeks of the crisis, the Iranian parliament sent an appeal
for assistance to its sister institution, the U.S. Congress, written in
French the diplomatic language of the day. A representative from
Louisiana read the message to this very House of Representatives
who were apparently so unused to hearing foreign languages, and so unsympathetic
to the cause of Iranian democracy, that they laughed at the Iranians' funny-sounding
appeal for help. Three weeks later, the Iranian parliament was dismissed
and democracy was undermined.
In conclusion, I'd like to raise the question: Will history repeat itself?
To what extent, I wonder, is the American reluctance to help the Iranian
democracy movement in the early 20th century going to be repeated in the
early 21st century? It appears that the U.S. government is still willing
to express public support for constitutionalism in Iran, but are we willing
to go the extra step and actually give it the assistance it needs? Are
we going to follow the model of Howard Baskerville and Morgan Shuster
Americans who cared deeply about democracy in Iran or are we going
to laugh once again at strange-sounding Iranian appeals for cooperation
These appeals have been made quite clearly by President Mohammad Khatami
and the pro-democracy movement in Iran. They want unilateral action by
the U.S., which will show the hard-liners that reformist diplomacy can
work. Among the actions they've specified are: the return of the money
that Iran paid for U.S. weapons in the 1970s, which were never delivered;
the lifting of the U.S. embargo, not just on symbolic goods but on all
trade; and Iran's inclusion in the Persian Gulf security arrangements.
If the U.S. government wants to help promote democracy in Iran, it should
drop its own preconditions for unilateral actions on the part of the Iranians.
As in the early 20th century, the pro-democracy forces in Iran are politically
vulnerable. Will we have to wait another century to see them re-emerge?
Charles Kurzman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is adapted from a speech
on April 17, 2000, at the conference "Building Bridges Between the
United States and Iran," hosted by U.S. Representative Bob Ney and
two NGO's: Search for Common Ground
and the ILEX Foundation.