Constitutionalism has a long history in Iran. Interest in establishing a constitutional form of government, spurred partly by the influence of Western models and partly by developments in neighboring Turkey, first appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The constitutional limitation of monarchical power was the principal goal of the revolutionary movement of 1905-1909. This movement, directed chiefly by the major religious leaders of the day, brought about the capitulation of Muzaffar ud-Din Shah in the summer of 1906, and the first Majlis in Iranian history prepared a constitution, consisting of a preamble and 51 articles, which was ratified on December 30, 1906. To it were added 107 supplementary articles, ratified on October 7, 1907. The constitution was amended four times, in accordance with the dictates of the Pahlavi family, in 1925, 1949, 1957, and 1967.
Theoretically, the constitution of 1906, with its later supplements and amendments, remained in force until the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979. In fact, however, it was almost always a dead letter: successive Shahs, with their obduracy powerfully reinforced by a succession of foreign patrons—Russian, British, and American—were able to maintain the reality of absolutism behind a facade of constitutional forms. Sayyid Hasan Mudarris, in the 1920’s, and Abul-Qasim Kashani and Dr. Musaddiq, in the 1940’s, strove unsuccessfully to obtain true implementation of the constitution. Only toward the end of his inauspicious rule did the recently deceased Shah take some interest in the constitution. This sudden interest in constitutional monarchy, a ploy intended to check the Revolution, led to such improbable spectacles as Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah’s envoy in Washington, pontificating on the need for respecting the constitution.
With the ineluctable advance of the Revolution toward victory, it became plain that a totally new constitution would be required in the new Islamic order. It was not merely that the 1906 constitution had always been flouted, or even that it provided for the institution of monarchy, which was now to be abolished. It was an anachronism, reflecting the needs and aspirations of another age, and based largely upon foreign, and especially Belgian, models. The Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979 was characterized by a far greater degree of ideological clarity and consciousness than the Constitutional Revolution; a constitution that was wholly and distinctively Islamic was bound to emerge from it.
Accordingly, Imam Khomeini, in his declaration of January 12, 1979 announcing the formation of the Council of the Islamic Revolution, declared one of the tasks of the transitional revolutionary government to be “the formation of a constituent assembly (majlis-i mu’assisan) composed of the elected representatives of the people in order to approve the new constitution of the Islamic Republic.” A draft constitution, in 151 articles, was drawn up and published in June.1 It became the subject of a wide-ranging public debate, reflected in the lively and variegated press that came into being in Iran after the revolution. Suggestions for changes and additions were also received from Muslim individuals and organizations outside Iran, so that the debate became a kind of informal consultation among Muslims for the production of a constitution that might have wider applicability than in Iran alone.
Meanwhile, in order to facilitate the swift amendment of the draft constitution and to move forward rapidly with the construction of new political institutions, it was decided to replace the broad constituent assembly originally proposed by Imam Khomeini with an Assembly of Experts (Majlis-i Khubragan). Elections for this Assembly took place on August 3 throughout the country, although returns for several areas were delayed because voters were harassed by various counterrevolutionary forces. The Assembly convened in Tehran, in the building of the former Iranian Senate, and subjected the draft constitution to minute examination and extensive revision. Proceedings of the Assembly were broadcast over Iranian television and edited transcripts appeared daily in the press. Barely a single article passed without extensive discussion of both substance and wording. The debates that took place constitute an important chapter not only in the history of the Iranian revolution but also in the evolution of contemporary Islamic political thought.2
The text that received final approval from the Assembly of Experts when work was completed in November differed considerably from the draft in bulk, structure, and content. The most important single difference was the introduction into the constitution of the key concept of vilayat-i faqih, “the governance ol.the faqih.!’ This doctrine, which Imam Khomeini had outlined at length in his celebrated lectures at Najaf in 1969, is the keystone of the new political structure, ensuring that the Republic will be Islamic in substance and daily functioning as well as designation.3 It is true that Article Two of the supplementary laws of 1907 had provided for a committee of five high-ranking scholars to ensure that no legislation passed by the Majlis would be contrary to Islam, but the article was never implemented. We may be certain that, in keeping with the character of the Islamic Revolution, the principle of vilayat-i faqih will be fully implemented in the manner laid down in the new Constitution.
The Constitution was approved in a referendum held throughout Iran on December 2-3. It already appears likely that a number of amendments will prove necessary, but the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a remarkable document as it stands, a product of the only Islamic revolutionary movement of modern times and one of the major accomplishments of the new Islamic order in the first year of its existence.
Ramadhan 1400/Mordad 1359/July 1980