Maarja Roon (Tallinn University, Estonia) “The Abortive Liberalizations of Iran. President Khatami’s Reform Movement and the 2009 Green Movement”


The name “Islamic Republic of Iran” contains two somewhat contradictory terms. “Islamic” refers to the rule of God, and “Republic” to the rule of people. Twice in the recent history of Iran the debate over the balance of power between God and the people has been so intense that there were large protests and strikes. The first (often called the “Reform Movement”) occurred after Muhhamad Khatami became president in 1997, the second (the “Green Movement”) after the 2009 presidential election.

Usually the explanations for the occurrence and failure of these movements stress Iran’s uniqueness or aspects of the leaders’ personalities. However, Guillermo O’Donnell’s and Philippe C. Schmitter’s democratic transition theory and the concept of “abortative liberalizations” can also help to understand the dynamics of these events, the reasons why the leaders decided to allow a greater freedom of press, and why this caused an popular upsurge with people demanding more rights.

At the same time, the two cases, as examples of non-transitions, help to develop the transition theory further by demonstrating which conditions allow the conservatives to stop the events triggered by the liberalization, and hinder the co-operation of the moderates in the government and in the opposition.