Civil Liberties and Iran’s First Constitution

Though the men responsible for creation of the Iranian Constitutional laws of 1906-07 looked for guidance in a number of other constitutions, their most important model was the Belgian Constitution of 1831. Along with the commercial and political ties that several of Iran's framers had to Belgium, the success of the Belgian Constitution in codifying new rights without creating an entirely new social structure attracted Iranian reformers confronted with a conservative and powerful Islamic clergy. The document that was created combined the modern desire for a secular nationalist identity with a new form of institutionalized authority for the clerics, inaugurating a hybrid legal code that contained multiple points of ambiguity.

By far the most important accomplishment of the 1906-07 constitution law was to limit the authority of the shah while boosting that of the Majles. The Shah, upon taking office, was required to uphold the rights of the nation. The shah was stripped of his power over the nation’s finances, could not unilaterally dissolve the Majles, had to obtain the signature of a cabinet minister in order to exercise his executive powers and could not refuse to sign and promulgate resolutions that had been ratified by the Majles. The reduction of the powers of the shah, however, was coupled with the codification of the many powers of the Islamic clergy. Besides the absence of any provision granting freedom of religion and speech or specifying equality before the law, the constitution conditioned the passage of laws in the Majles to compliance with sharia law and formalized a two-tired system of justice with secular courts handling matters within the public domain and sharia courts having jurisdiction over private matters. In may ways these contradictions have proven to be thematic in Iran’s subsequent political evolution.

Janet Afary
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