Iran and America: The Spirit of 1908

So is it 1979 all over again?

It is certainly tempting to compare this week's events in Iran with the street protests and violent confrontations that brought down the Shah's regime thirty years ago. But for a whole host of reasons (lack of inspirational leadership; a bedrock of support for the regime, etc), the analogy is a non-starter, and most sensible analysts have been quick to set it aside. One scholar has suggested the uprising of 1963, in which the Ayatollah Khomeini first came into the spotlight, as a better analogy. Thousands of emotional young idealists poured into the streets then - only to see the Shah's goons swiftly gain the upper hand and send the ayatollah into exile. An interesting idea, but if we're looking for a historical parallel, the one that comes to mind is neither 1979 nor 1963. It is 1908. And it is chock full of lessons for America.

Is 101 years a bit far to go back to help us understand what's happening today? Not in Iran. If there is one thing that both fundamentalists and reformers will agree on, it's that the Iranian people's long (and largely unfinished) march to freedom began during the Constitutional Revolution, or 'Mashruteh,' of 1906-1909. Say that very word to a basiji thug or to one of Tehran's green-clad young twitterers today and both will tell you, insistently, that they are the true defenders of its legacy. The mashruteh is Iran's Federalist Papers and Boston Tea Party, all rolled into one; its Spirit of '76.

Iran's constitutionalist uprising was the first great revolution of the 20th century - an expression of spontaneous rage against a corrupt and bankrupt monarchy. Much like today's movement, it didn't demand a fundamental overthrow of the prevailing system. Instead, it unified the country's merchants, intellectuals, and (yes) clerics in demanding nothing more than an elected parliament and a constitution. The result? A remarkably progressive charter that enshrined the principles of equality, personal rights, universal public education, and freedom of the press. It was the first document of its kind in the Middle East, and it has formed the basis of Iran's political debates ever since.

Iran's shah at the time, Mohammed Ali, initially tolerated the constitutional movement, but with considerable reluctance. Then, after an assassination attempt in which a bomb was thrown at his car in February 1908, he became less sympathetic and more confrontational. After several weeks of turmoil, he began cracking down - arresting constitutionalists, declaring martial law, and even calling in the fearsome Russian Cossacks to run riot and intimidate protesters in the streets of Tehran. Finally, on 23 June 1908, the Cossacks stormed the new parliament building, precipitated an eight-hour gun battle, and killed several constitutionalists. It unleashed a civil war.

Despite a wave of indignation and demands for tough action from the United States (driven, no less, by politicians with close ties to the evangelical Christian movement and its missionaries living in Iran), official Washington maintained a dignified distance from events on the ground, and refused to take sides - at least not overtly. The US minister in Tehran was sympathetic to the revolutionaries, but projected an aura of quiet detachment. The State Department did the same. And all this during the rambunctious presidency of the original rough rider himself - Theodore Roosevelt. When William Taft took the oath of office in 1909, his inaugural address expressed optimism about the possibility of improved trade relations with Iran, but said nothing about the turmoil on the streets.

As the months dragged on and thousands were starved or beaten into submission, Iran's brave little experiment with democracy appeared dead on arrival. But eventually, the dust settled, and the United States found itself in an excellent position to reap the rewards of its fastidious neutrality. For months, as they battled for their survival and bled for their cause, Iranian constitutionalists had been struck by the contrast between America's hands-off attitude and the heavy-handed interference by Russia and Britain. They were impressed by this apparently unselfish new power on the world stage, and interpreted its silence as a form of subtle and tacit support - rather than lack of interest. So when the constitutional upheaval was over, its leaders turned to America to help them build a new Iran. In 1911, the newly minted parliament recruited a 35-year-old American lawyer, Morgan Shuster, to be 'Treasurer-General' - and gave him broad powers to restructure the country's finances. The Iranian public became steadily enamored of the United States, and thus began a remarkable 30-year love affair between the two countries - the kind of thing that has never been seen before or since. Shuster's turned out to be just the first of three such American missions - the last wrapping up its work in 1945.

President Obama is taking the long view, and he is dead right. This is Iran's struggle, not America's. And when the dust has settled, the Iranian public (for whom the specter of foreign interference is a longstanding obsession) will remember the note he struck this week. If, as appears likely, Khamenei is left standing but weakened, he will be in no mood to negotiate with a United States that was so overtly seen as licking its chops at the prospect of regime change. And if, by some miracle, the Islamic Republic is swept away and replaced with some new form of government, then it, too, will find it politically difficult to open the country up to American influence if it's seen by the people as an American 'puppet.' We have little to lose and, possibly, everything to gain from a little circumspection.