In the midst of a period of explosive change in modern Iran, the Persian Constitutional Revolution gained momentum when Mozzafar-al-Din Shah Qajar agreed to the establishment of a parliament on August 5, 1906 following nearly a year of protests. Within five years, the first country in Asia to establish a constitutional monarchy had laid the groundwork for a modern nation that would dissolve its monarchy altogether in 1925.
During the early 1900s, just a few years after Mozzafar-al-Din had taken power, his reputation as a spendthrift had gotten the country into significant financial trouble. Having used massive loans from Britain and Russia to fund his extravagant lifestyle (such as a 22-million ruble tour of Europe in 1900), the royal family found itself saddled with hefty debts – a burden generally passed on to the people themselves. As the Shah’s role in negotiating trade agreements favorable to foreign powers came to light, Mozzafar-al-Din made enemies amongst the nobility, clergy and educated within Persia. In 1905, after the Russians placed high tariffs on Persian goods in order to recoup their investment in his travel, protests began in the streets of Tehran.
Local merchants and clergy attempted to hide from the government in a mosque, but officials soon entered the holy building and dispersed the protestors. Concerned over his ability to remain in power as the city simmered, the Shah fired his prime minister and consented to the Basti (those who had taken sanctuary in the mosque) demand for his power being transferred to a “house of justice” in January 1906 – but progress would be slowed by violence against clerics and other protestors. In search of protection, many found themselves at the British embassy.
With thousands of men living on the grounds, political discourse became more and more frequent through the summer of 1906. Here, the ideas for a Majles, the Persian word for “gathering” that would come to be used to describe parliament, first came to be formed. When the proposal reached the Shah, he agreed to it on August 5th, with elections following a few weeks later.
The 156 members of the Persian parliament gathered for the first time that October, working quickly to formulate a constitution. As Moffazar-al-Din advanced in age and became weakened by illness, the Constitutional Assembly worked feverishly to ensure he could sign a formal agreement – his son and heir, Muhammed Ali, found the idea repulsive and would certainly not consent. On December 31, 1906, the Shah signed the document into law just five days before his death.
Over the course of the next twenty years, a tug-of-war continued between the Constitutionalists and the heirs to the Shah. Muhammed Ali, attempting to undo all his father’s work, immediately declared his desire to “exploit the divisions within the ranks of the reformers” and restore his reign. Though the British and Russians would both eventually take sides in the debate, Rezah Shah Pahlavi would overthrow Ahmad Shah Qajar, Muhammed’s son, in 1925. Redrawing the lines of Majles power to transform it into little more than an instrument of agreement with the leader of the Imperial State of Iran, Pahlavi created a dynasty that would last until 1979, when the Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution forced his son into exile.