From the Revolution to the Great War

  November 11, 2021   Read time 4 min
From the Revolution to the Great War
THE REGULAR MILITARY’S UNSTEADY MARCH toward modernity and effectiveness came to a virtual standstill after the start of the twentieth century, but a new popular fighting force arrived on the scene to lay part of the foundation for future improvements.

These revolutionary militias, called the mujahedin, or “fi ghters of the holy cause,” by their contemporaries, arose to batt le for Western- style democratic reforms and to resist foreign domination. They were joined by tribal warriors to confront the Qajars, who remained unwilling to reform, incapable of addressing the armed forces’ many problems, and oblivious to unfolding world events. While the Qajar military still relied on tribal levies, the mujahedin represented a new type of armed force. Although equipped similarly to the tribal fighters and, like the levies, organized by local leaders, the mujahedin diff ered in key aspects. Most were volunteers committ ed to a political philosophy and the fight for democratic government during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1911. They were willing to challenge the Peacock Throne and make incredible sacrifi ces in brave fights against invading foreign armies. These fighters faded away aft er the political factions they supported were unable to maintain cohesion and support Iran’s democratic aspirations. Their nationalism lived on, however, and in 1912 was incorporated into another new force, the Gendarmerie, which provided a glimpse of Iran’s ability to create a professional, brave, incorruptible, and eff ective military organization.

At the turn of the century popular ferment against the Qajars was stirred by news from around the world. The challenge to British rule in the 1899–1902 Boer War and Japan’s victory in the Russo- Japanese War of 1905 sparked great political excitement. Iranian writers applauded the Transvaal’s leaders for their resistance to Great Britain. The idea that Japan, a recently backward country, could win a confrontation with a much larger and bett er established European nation had obvious appeal. Iranian literature abounded with praise for Japan’s strong, centralized government; its powerful military; and its constitutional framework. The 1905 Constitutional Revolution in Russia provided another positive example, and Iranian mullahs were exhorted to emulate the Russian clergy in mobilizing the masses against the government.

At the same time, the Qajar court’s options for resisting foreign domination grew smaller as the “great game” between Great Britain and Russia ended. By mid- decade the two powers were apprehensive over the growing strength of Germany. Ready to cooperate against this common foe, the two signed the 1907 Anglo- Russian Treaty that divided Iran into three zones of infl uence, with Russia taking the north, Britain the south, and central Iran designated as neutral. Russian aims in Iran were to exploit Iranian resources and prevent any changes in Iran that might influence Muslims under imperial Russian rule. The British approach was similarly imperialistic, but wavered over the amount of engagement that was necessary or wise. The strategic importance of the British zone and of Iran in general was increased by the discovery of oil at Masjed- e Soleyman in 1908 and by the British Admiralty’s decision shortly thereaft er to change from coal to oil as the fl eet’s fuel source.

Concerned about stability, the British vacillated between supporting the budding democratic nationalist movement and helping to maintain the ruling elite’s authority. The nationalism growing as an outlet for opposition to Qajar rule and the shahs’ concessions to foreigners increased the risk of the chaos, pushing the British toward supporting the status quo. Meanwhile, hatred of the Russians and British helped to form a common bond that contributed to a nationalist outlook that linked Iranians together for the tumultuous period between 1905 and 1911, and later through the First World War. For all of the strengths of Iranian nationalism, however, it was divided. The traditionalists, especially among the clergy, sought to reassert their conception of a conservative and idealized Islamic past absent Western infl uences. The reformers, meanwhile, wanted to advance Iran’s fortunes by incorporating Western science, technology, and political liberalism.

Iran’s first national assembly and constitution and subsequent revolution took root from a quarrel between merchants and the government over the enforcement of tariff s in late 1905. The merchants were joined by leading clerics, local revolutionary councils and fi ghters, and other discontented elements of Iranian society. Popular protests eventually forced the shah to promise to surrender his absolute power and convene representatives of the people in a “house of justice.” Muzzafar al- Din refused to keep his promise, and in mid- 1906, the government exiled nationalist leaders, inciting greater unrest. When a leading cleric in Tehran was arrested, a group of theology students tried to free the mullah. They challenged Cossack Brigade soldiers sent to impose a curfew, and one student was killed in the ensuing melee. The movement now had a martyr, and the young man’s bloody shirt was quickly raised by his fellow students and carried through the streets of Tehran.