With the New Year came and passed the forgotten anniversary of a seminal event in Iranian and Asian history: the anniversary of Iran's first revolution and Asia's oldest parliament, whose centenary came and passed some years ago without a murmur. Remembering that event today would do much to elucidate Iran's present situation, as well as the vexed relations of Iranians with both their government and the outside world.
The zero hour was late on the night of December 30, 1906, when the dying emperor of Iran, Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, signed into law the country's first constitution, launching a brave experiment in liberal and parliamentary government. Iran, which for the past century had been a plaything in the contest between the British and Russian empires known as the Great Game, shone as a beacon of hope for an Asia drowning in the high-tide of European imperialism.
The struggle for democracy in Iran - or more accurately, for responsible, progressive and independent leadership - is over one hundred years old and did not begin with the Green Movement in 2009, nor with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or the 1950s nationalist movement under Musaddiq. These historical events marked not the birth, but the continuation of the Iranian people's struggle for democracy that had begun in 1906.
Too often the history of Iran is reduced to a string of despotisms interrupted by moments of fanatical violence and foreign intervention. Part of the problem is that Americans ask the wrong questions of the region (why do they hate us? why is there so much violence there?) that privilege explanations of America's ‘intelligence failures', but do little to forward their understanding of the local historical forces at work. This distorted history serves Iranians who like to write off their own country's failings as the nefarious work of foreigners. Both sides seem to agree that if history is not the work of despots and terrorists, it is the doing of the CIA or the British.
In December 1906, the feeling in Iran was akin to that of today's Arab Spring: a thrilling moment when society stirred and rose in revolt against a corrupt system. In the tumult of this countrywide movement, there emerged the demand for a constitution granting an elected and national (not Islamic, as some wanted) parliament.
The signed document called for a liberal government modeled on the constitutional monarchies of Belgium and Great Britain. It was a dramatic departure from millennia of absolute monarchy. If only in principle, Iranians, so long the subjects of their unaccountable rulers, became citizens who held their rulers to account.
The Constitutional Revolution, as it was known, aspired to develop the country into a modern nation-state, and so protect Iran's independence from the preying greed of the European empires. Instead, the following two decades brought violent unrest, civil war, and foreign occupation, leading many Iranians to remember the revolution as a painful failure.
Far from failing, Iran's first revolution left an important legacy: nationalism, the institutions of a modern state, and a tradition of popular democracy. The Majles, the country's elected assembly, is the longest-sitting parliament in Asia. Iran's rulers have often reduced the institution to a rubber stamp, but none has dared to rule without it.
The constitutional movement was overwhelmingly progressive and pluralistic (a living, if embattled, spirit among Tehran's bourgeoisie today). The revolutionaries of 1906, a broad camp that embraced both princes and peasants, were cosmopolitan and open-minded. They welcomed the help of Georgians and others from the Russian Caucasus. Public committees sprang up across the country, many of them dedicated to women's rights and the cause of social democracy. They left a legacy of grass-roots organization, and anticipated the political sophistication of Iranian men and women today.
The revolution rumbled on for a few more years, turning into a civil war that pitted the constitutionalists against the reactionaries, led by the powerful cleric Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, whose violent rantings against liberalism as un-Islamic led him to be hung as a traitor. Today's regime calls Nuri a martyr and a visionary who first described the mullahs as the legitimate rulers of the land.