Constitutional Revolution and Nationalization of Iranian Foreign Policy

  December 14, 2023   Read time 3 min
Constitutional Revolution and Nationalization of Iranian Foreign Policy
The Constitutional Revolution had a far-reaching impact on the foreign policy of Iran both positively and negatively. The Constitutional Movement was basically a nationalist movement, and, as such, it signaled the beginnings of a nationalization of Iranian foreign policy.

Traditionally the Shah had been identified with the state, his ends and means had been those of the state, and he had dealt with foreign powers in the name of “state interests”. As “the sole executive,” he had made alliances, waged wars, received and dispatched envoys, granted concessions involving all the resources of the country, contracted loans, and conducted Iran's commerce with other states just about as he pleased as far as Iran was concerned. The Constitution gave the Majlis many important powers concerning foreign affairs. Financial matters, transfers or sales of any portion of the national resources, changes in the boundaries of the nation, concessions, and treaties and covenants were all made subject to the approval of the Majlis.

The Majlis was not remiss in using the powers granted by the Constitution. For the first time in the history of Iran “the representatives of the people" spoke and acted in “the interests of the people”. In the course of the First and Second Majlis the deputies consulted Iran’s national interests, as we have seen, in the case of foreign loans, the 1907 convention, and the employment of Shuster, the American adviser. Many sympathetic observers have testified to the genuineness of the national sentiments of the deputies, a majority of whom in the First Majlis, according to E. G. Browne, “were animated by a patriotism and public spirit which would have been creditable in the members of any Parliament, whether in Europe or America.” No less can be said about the deputies of the Second Majlis, who, when faced with the overwhelmingly superior force of Russia and its intrigues, bribes, and threats, refused to sign away “the honor and sovereignty of their nation.”

Unfortunately the Constitutional Movement also had a negative impact on foreign policy. Noble sentiments and good intentions are not sufficient in matters of foreign policy. The traditional policy makers had suffered consistently from chronic unrealism, rooted in ignorance, superstition, lack of experience, and other factors. The emerging policy makers were neither so ignorant nor so superstitious. In fact, a few were the graduates of some of the finest European universities. Yet they proved as unrealistic as the traditional policy makers. They, too, chose objectives beyond their means. They aimed uncompromisingly at “complete independence” in disregard of both the external and the internal situation

Externally the situation was utterly hopeless. Forces beyond the control of Iran had brought the traditional rivals together. Great Britain, which had hitherto acted as a counterweight to Russian influence and intervention in Iran found it difficult to oppose Russia after the 1907 agreement. Moral or immoral, legal or illegal, the agreement was a fact. Disregard of this by the deputies closed off avenues of maneuver that could have counterbalanced to some extent Iran’s want of power. It also helped provoke Russia into committing atrocities on Iranian soil and destroying the new parliament which some of the Constitutionalists had paid with their lives to establish.

Internal factors were also ignored by the new policy makers. They mistakenly took nationalism for national unity. They failed to recognize the divisive forces militating against the new political order. The Constitutional Movement split the society between the Royalists and the Nationalists. This division proved to be Russia’s best ally in Iran as evidenced by Russian manipulation of not only such notorious characters as Salär al-Dawlah, Shujä* al-Dawlah, Shapshäl Khän, and Amir Bahadur Jang but also the Shah himself. Traditional factionalism persisted, although it now appeared in the form, or within the framework of, the new political institutions borrowed from the West.

The choice of “complete independence” as the objective of the new policy makers in disregard of the external and internal limitations imposed on Iran reveals the continuation of unrealism in Iran’s foreign policy. The fountainhead of this neo-unrealism differed from that of the traditional one. Now its source was principally the new dogma of nationalism. Nationalism did not bestow a rational foreign policy on Iran overnight. The policy of strict neutrality during the First World W ar, as will be seen in the following chapter, was an important manifestation of the continuing political unrealism in Iran’s foreign policy.

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