Reaction and Civil War, 1908–9

  November 11, 2021   Read time 3 min
Reaction and Civil War, 1908–9
Muhammad Ali Shah (r. 1907–9) ascended to the Qajar throne determined to reverse the democratic course but lacked the military power to act decisively. The new shah was described by an American adviser to the court as “perhaps the most perverted, cowardly, and vice- ridden monster that had disgraced the throne of Persia in many generations.”

With the help of supporters in the Majles, Muhammad Ali undermined the new legislature. Despite the Qajars’ continued reliance on Russian and British support, the shah and promonarchy elements condemned the constitution as a Western- inspired and anti- Islamic document. These att acks eff ectively exposed rift s between the modern secularists and the traditionalists, especially among the clergy, in the constitutional movement. The Russians were adamantly proshah because, aft er their own recent revolution, they opposed radical reformers everywhere. The British initially favored but then deserted the reformers, fearing that only the shah could maintain stability. London also was reluctant to challenge its new Russian ally as the anti- German Anglo- Russian Treaty was being negotiated. Russia agreed to fund the Cossack Brigade, and the payment of a special bonus and purging of anti- Russian Iranian offi cers restored the unit’s discipline and helped assure the shah of its loyalty. Colonel Liakhov and his Russian offi cers began to intervene openly on behalf of Muhammad Ali against the Majles and constitutionalists.

Muhammad Ali struck back at the democrats in mid- December 1907 in a failed att empt to overthrow the constitutional government by arresting the prime minister, dismissing the cabinet, and closing the legislature. As many as two thousand mujahedin assembled to defend the Majles while other rifl emen scatt ered over the roofs of the city. Mujahedin in Tabriz, Rasht, Qazvin, Kerman, and Esfahan proclaimed that they were ready to march on the capital. The Cossack and regular army commanders in Tabriz, Tehran, and other cities backed down in the face of this popular determination. The foreign legations, frightened by the prospect of violence, joined with the democrats in demanding that the shah restore the constitutional order. With the addition of this foreign pressure, Muhammad Ali relented. He agreed to the legislators’ demands to dismiss his reactionary advisers, place the Cossack Brigade and his household troops under the Ministry of War, and uphold the constitutional order. A new crisis developed a few months later in late February 1908 when a prodemocratic radical threw a bomb at the royal motorcade. The Qajar monarch was not harmed but was left shaken by the experience and determined to renew the confrontation with the constitutionalists. Aft er receiving assurances of Russian support, the shah put in motion plans to close the legislature and arrest the constitutional movement’s leaders.

The coup began in early June when Muhammad Ali and his entourage were escorted to safety outside the capital and roughly three hundred Cossacks with two artillery pieces surrounded the Majles. Other Cossacks arrested some of the nationalist leaders and seized telegraph offi ces to cut off communications to the provinces. Having ordered martial law, the shah made Colonel Liakhov military governor with full power over the police and military forces. In response to Muhammad Ali’s ultimatum, the reformist legislators agreed to have the mujahedin disperse, providing Liakhov the opening he needed to complete the Majles’ emasculation. On June 23, 1908, a thousand or more Cossacks and regular army soldiers supported by light artillery and machine guns surrounded the Majles and the nearby Sepahsalar Mosque, where some of the nationalists had taken refuge. Following some initial skirmishing between the infantry and the mujahedin defenders, six Cossack guns opened fi re on the buildings. Accounts vary, but up to four hundred soldiers, including some of the mounted Cossacks, deserted rather than participate in the att ack. The nationalist fighters in the two compounds were still far outmanned and outgunned. In the course of a few brave sallies, however, the mujahedin were able to put three of the six Cossack artillery pieces out of action. Aft er nearly eight hours of bombardment, the death of 250 mujahedin, and the partial collapse of the compounds around them, the surviving fi ghters fl ed. Over the next twelve months, civil war raged in several regions as the nationalists tried to restore the democratic order.