The New Constitutionalists of Iran

Dariush Homayoun


Modern politics in Iran goes back to Iran's first serious and comprehensive encounter with the modern world, with modernity itself. As such, it is not older than the twentieth century itself. The Constitutional Movement of Iran, which started in the last decade of the nineteenth century and triumphed in 1906, can rightly be called the starting point of a modernizing process that has encompassed all aspects of Iran's national life. With a great many ups and downs it has been evolving throughout the past hundred years. It is a national effort that is still far from successful.

The concept of political parties, as journalism and a new language of political communication, dates back to that period. From there the four main political "families" or currents of recent Iranian history developed to dominate the national scene, each of them in response to some of the aspects or basic values of that movement. These are the Nationalist-Progressivists, best represented by the Pahlavis; the Democratic-Nationalists, represented by Mossadeq; Radical Left, and Islamic Fundamentalists, which from the start opposed the Constitutional Movement.

Those basic values were: Nationalism (defensive and protective), Democracy, Progressivism and Social Justice (taken to the extreme by the Radical Left). All of these values were thought of as interconnected, forming a coherent project for safeguarding Iranian independence and territorial integrity, which by definition means a participatory democracy and a modern educational and industrial infrastructure. Social Justice was an ideal that only the Social Democrats among the Constitutionalists espoused.

The founding fathers of the constitution, which is the first of its kind in the so-called third world, could not think of these values or ideals in separate terms; but the realities of the Iranian situation militated against such a notion, forcing hard choices and exposing contradictions not only for the revolutionary generation, but the forthcoming generations, as well.

Iran at the beginning of the present century hardly existed beyond its geographic definition, a few million people scattered around a vast impoverished land with no communication system worthy of the name (to go to many parts of Iran, one had to travel through a neighboring land), with less than a 5 percent literacy rate and almost no army, no administration, and no finance in the modern sense of the word. It was experiencing a democratic revolution before a consolidating period as in the case of the French Revolution.

The triumphant revolutionaries soon found themselves with the impossible task of rebuilding a country from scratch in a "democratic" system that only catered to a small political class in major cities.

The rise of Reza Shah, the first of the Pahlavis in 1921, was a rational solution for this contradiction. He set aside all but the facade of democratic institutions and concentrated his gigantic energy on providing the country with a modern army, bureaucracy education and communication infrastructure and an industrial base in between. He modeled himself after such enlightened despots, reforming autocrats, as Peter the Great, Fredric the Great and his contemporary, Ata Turk of Turkey.

Reza Shah started a political tradition that can be called Nationalist-Progressivist, one that dominated the Iranian society for the best part of the century, a tradition characterized by a devotion to rapid modernization at the expense of democracy and glorification of Iranian past, especially pre-Islamic history. From 1925 to 1978 Iran was a constitutional monarchy committed to two broad goals:

1. To preserve national sovereignty in a region dominated by Russian-Soviet and remnants of British Empires, both of which with a long history of colonial ambitions toward Iran.

2. To build up national strength through modernizing programs, lifting Iran from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century within a few generations.

Except for a brief period after the occupation of Iran by Allied Forces (1941 - 1953), the constitutional element in this equation was overshadowed by the monarchical element. One reason for which has already been mentioned - the sheer backwardness of Iranian society, including its lack of democratic culture. Another important reason was the constant threat from Iran's powerful neighbor in the north and its historic counterwight-accomplice, Great Britain, with its lingering influence in Iranian affairs, both externally through its presence in the region and internally by its commanding position in Iranian politics.

Well into the 1960s the Iranian ruling elite was, by tradition, pro-British to the extent of subservience. The intelligentsia, on the other hand, was dominated by the Communists and Radical Leftist groups for more than forty years after the war came to Iran. The Tudeh Party of Iran, supported and financed by the Soviet Union, had dominated the trade union movement and for a while had even an extensive network of members in the armed forces.

The Pahlavis were operating in a world bedeviled by totalitarian ideas and a culture of violence and radicalism. They could not be accused of democratic dispositions, but their opponents were not models of liberal democracy themselves. Even Mossadeq, the Nationalist leader, with all his devotion to the constitution, found it incompatible with his anticolonial struggle against Great Britain. He, as a proclaimed Constitutionalist, was as intolerant of any difference in opinion as were the Pahlavis and went even further in violating the constitution (dissolving the Senate, the Supreme Court, Parliament itself and holding an extra constitutional and not a very free referendum).

To these one must add the anti Democratic instincts of the Shahs and the corrupting effects of absolute power overemphasizing military security aspects of governance and an obsession with statistics, which could easily be distorted and exaggerated, in place of a well-defined strategy of development, were among other factors that helped bring both the monarchy and the country down. (One other important factor being the excessive dependence on Western power.)

Towards a New Constitutionalism

The downfall of the monarchy was a crushing blow to political and ideological camp fellows of the former regime. For a while it seemed that the exiled monarchists were no more than a nostalgic dying breed and the failure of the defeated monarchy was considered as not only political, but also historical leaving no future role for it. However, as time passed, many more people became disillusioned with their revolution and started comparing what had been before with what was becoming of Iran and themselves. Not long after the revolution, at least among the Iranian exile community, the monarchists far outnumbered all other political leanings combined.

This resurgence of monarchist sentiment, however, did not turn into an organization, an effective political force in accordance with its size and resources. A simple reliance on emotions and the magical echo of the shah's name for many was considered sufficient. People, in true Bourbon fashion, tended to act as if nothing had to be forgotten or learned. After all, were they not able to organize a march in Washington with more than four thousand demonstrators and fill an 18,000-seat stadium in Los Angeles to hear the young Shah?

After a decade of trying to organize the vast monarchist segment of the exile community under the slogans of "Death to Khomeini" and "Long Live the Shah" it became clear that much more than sentiments were needed. It became also clear that in the confused and rather impoverished scene of the Iranian opposition, an organization representing one of the most important political traditions of Iran was missing.

For many years the most active among monarchists were those who had just one message: Bringing back royal power and punishing all the culprits, in short, "Restoration" and "Revanchisme" to go back to the French Revolution again. There are still a dozen such circles active in various Iranian communities around the world, some of them managing to publish irregular periodicals characterized by a distinct intellectual poverty. In fact, anti intellectualism is a hallmark of most of these circles. There is also a group splintered after the formation of the Constitutionalists Movement of Iran, which while using many features of the main group, exists only through occasional press releases.

The actual preparations for setting up an organization of Iranian Constitutionalists started in late 1991. But its theoretical groundwork had been laid in books and articles from as early as 1981, the starting point of which being a critic of the revolution and the Ancien Regime. Any credible attempt to lay down a framework for thought and action had to deal with what had really happened and had gone wrong. The Iranian revolution could not be explained by simplistic conspiracy theories and Iran's future could not be a repetition of the past.

The fact that Pahlavi era, with all its inadequacies and its defeat, is still remembered so fondly by most Iranians does not diminish the need for a broad reappraisal, a new way of thinking about the Iranian situation - its past, present and future. By going back to the roots of the Constitutional Movement and drawing lessons from the rich history of the Constitutional era (1906-1979) and analyzing other case histories during the past century a new constitutionalism developed and paved the way for the Constitutionalists Movement of Iran (hereafter referred to as "CMI"). The charter of this organization is based on four general ideas, all deeply rooted in Iranian recent historical experience:

1. Defensive Nationalism

Iran's recent history is a long history of foreign encroachment on national sovereignty and territory, so there is a very strong nationalistic tendency among Iranians - a determination to preserve Iran as it is and resist any separatist attempt or foreign aggression. The charter proposes a foreign and defense policy aimed at defending Iran's national sovereignty while helping the stability of the neighboring area and devoid of adventurism, a strategy for making Western and Southern Asia free of weapons of mass destruction.

Since the demise of the Russian-Soviet Empire for the first time in 250 years there is no common border between Iran and Russia; Iran's geostrategic position has undergone a drastic change. Although the country is situated in one of the most volatile regions of the world there is no comparable threat to Iran's territorial integrity as before. This removes a great emotional and political barrier to introduce real decentralization of government in Iran.

CMI believes in setting up local governments in all regions of the country, giving the people the right to run their own affairs.

2. Democracy and Pluralism

After a hundred years of modernization and all out development, however haphazard and unbalanced, Iranian society has reached a point where only a democratic system can work for Iran, solving contradictions that no amount of government authority or oil money proved adequate in solving. From the 1960s when a certain stage of development was reached and the country could well embark on a strategy of gradual democratization, three obstacles blocked Iran's road to a liberal democracy: Authoritarian Monarchy, Radical Left and Islamic Fundamentalism. Now all three have been defeated, the last one waiting for its inevitable political defeat after proving its irrelevance even to the majority of its supporters.

The source of all sovereignty is the free will of the people when they are able to express it. The CMI will, through democratic means, try to convince people to vote for a constitutional monarchy.

3. Human Rights

The concept of human rights, something above majority rule, is a novel one in Iranian political culture. Even in the Constitution of 1906-1907 there was no mention of the inalienable rights of human beings. There have been many defenders of human rights in Iran, but they were merely defending partisan human rights as was flagrantly shown during the atrocities of the Islamic Revolution.

In recent years however, Iranians from different parts of the political spectrum have been awakened to the importance of human rights in building a modern society and establishing democratic rule.

The CMI has incorporated the universal declaration of human rights in its covenants concerning political, social and economic rights into its platform. Special emphasis has been put on the vital questions of separation of religion from government (religion is a personal matter and not in the public realm), the rights of Iran's ethnic groups and equality of men and women.

4. Progressivism

No other political tradition in Iran - the Leftists, the so-called Nationalist- Liberals, the religion Fundamentalists has been so deeply committed to modernizing Iranian society as the Constitutionalists. This was the mission of the Constitutional Movement and was carried out by the Pahlavis and is still to be furthered. The CMI platform devotes ample space to policies related to creating a modern society.

Iran, situated in the crossroad of a new "silk route" from central Asia to the Persian Gulf with a large domestic market and a young work force of which millions have been trained by Iranian and foreign universities and other institutions on top of huge oil, gas and other natural resources, has the potential of becoming a regional powerhouse - a dynamo of economic development for an area of great importance. By adopting a version of social market economy and due consideration for the environment, a sustained rapid economic growth rate can be maintained improving even on prerevolutionary times.

Even more important than economic factors, the historic drag on Iran's progress, namely the traditional culture, a culture that for more than a thousand years resisted change and innovation, is now retreating under the pressure of its own success. Even the most traditional segments of society are turning against a world view that inspired a triumphant revolution trying to turn Iran back to fourteen hundred years ago. The fact that the Islamic regime is so dependent on the modern world has not helped its championing of "Authentic Islamic Values." One can claim without exaggeration that, culturally, Iran is ready for secularism for a plunge into the twenty-first century.

A Fast Growing Organization

With a platform directly drawn from Iran's own recent history and articulated with an eye to other countries' experiences and by taking advantage of a groundswell of support for monarchy among Iranians, the CMI has, in the past 18 months, been able to establish some 20 branches in various European and North American cities. These are autonomous, self-ruled organizations and their activities are coordinated by an elected body of five.

The organization operates among a large number of sympathizers and has a monthly publication. It is, by all accounts, the fastest growing political grouping outside of Iran. As far as Iran itself is concerned, no one can gauge the amount of support for any political group, given the suppression by a police state. Nevertheless, if the political leaning of the large exile Iranian community could be any indication, one could safely claim that constitutional monarchy enjoys much greater popularity than others.

A constitutional monarchy, because of its deep roots in Iranian history, has more chance to keep Iran together to restore a sense of stability to help reestablish democratic institutions and preserve democratic process. A monarchy modeled after Spain, which is the greatest inspiration for Iranian monarchists, is the most reassuring form of government for many Iranians.

The fact that Iran's recent kings did not adhere to constitutional principles is a failure that should be corrected through popular participation in national and public affairs. Dictatorship is not a product of form; rather, it is a sign of deficiency in body politics. If Reza Shah had succeeded in making Iran a republic before realizing that changing the dynasty was more feasible, we were now analyzing why a republican form of government turns into a dictatorship and how to prevent it. Iran is now finally prepared to enter the modern world and a Western style monarch could only enhance its chances of doing so. If, on the other hand, the country's intelligentsia, its political class, has not yet matured enough for a politics of consensus, a republican form of government would as easily degenerate into all sorts of dictatorship dotting Iran's geographic area.

The key element is to modernize Iran's political culture, the religious tribal nature of political confrontation, that has marked the past two generations, a culture that has hampered Iran's progress towards liberal democracy. Changing it so that different and opposing views and interests can work inside a national framework and observe democratic rules of political debate and conflicts is a task that CMI has set for itself. The organization is actively pursuing dialogue and cooperation with other political groups and leanings. It has put forward a basis for general agreement among all democratic non radical elements in the opposition. This basis comprises of the following principles:

1. Iran's national unity and integrity

2. Democracy and pluralism

3. Human rights with emphasis on the rights of Iran's ethnic groups, separation of religion from government and equality of men and women.

This could be a common ground for all in which to compete with or even oppose each other and also cooperate in circumstances like this when an oppressive corrupt and obscurantist regime is endangering the very existence of Iran.

The Strategy for Struggle

All the brave plans of the opposition for the future of Iran are meaningless as long as a clerical oligarchy rules the country with an iron fist with only its interest and agenda in mind. As important as it is to have a clear plan for the future, the main task of all patriotic Iranians is to fight the present regime.

This requires a strategy for struggle, a strategy that conforms both with the nature and beliefs of the opposition forces and their aspirations for the future of Iran. What CMI has formulated and is pursuing is the strategy for "Political Popular Struggle." The main component of such a strategy is to mobilize (inform and organize) the people, first outside of Iran and then, through that organized base, inside of Iran.

This strategy renounces armed struggle and terrorism and concentrates on propaganda, lobbying, dissemination of information and organizational work. The goal of the strategy is to make life difficult for the Islamic Republic, to isolate the regime and try to subject it to international pressure and encourage people to intensify their defiance and resistance to the government's suppression and corruption.

Bearing in mind the extent of popular discontent and the regime's mounting problems, both internally and internationally, a strategy of popular struggle helped by an international public opinion outraged by the excesses of the Islamic regime, is the best course of action for a democratic opposition. Iranians from all walks of life, including some in the ruling circles, are desperately trying to find a way out of the present impasse. Any resolute struggle to bring down religious fascism, either by forcing it to free elections or overthrowing it by popular uprising, has many natural allies even among those serving the machinery of state.

The slogan of free elections has gained approval among most opposition groups and has been interpreted in many different ways. To CMI it means first the dismantling of all the apparatus of suppression; all the barriers to people's participation and free expression of their wills; and second, an electoral process open to all, regardless of their beliefs and positions and supervised by neutral authority. It does not mean a deal by which the clerical oligarchy tolerates a few acceptable outsiders and claim, as its spokesmen and apologists are claiming, that democratization is underway in Iran and the world should reward the Islamic republic through trade and aid.

What backing is needed is for Iranian people in their confrontation with a regime that machine guns demonstrators from helicopters and sends hundreds of political prisoners before firing squads night after night.

Those governments that pursue their "critical dialogue," meaning profitable trade, are helping the ruling clerics to squander Iranian national resources. They have already plundered more than 250 billion dollars of the nation's oil income.

September, 1995