In major cities, the movement can draw from an enormous reservoir of people with poor prospects. Almost half of Iran's working-age population is now unemployed, and even the official unemployment rate lies at 25 percent.
In Isfahan, the protest movement has gained particularly strong support in the working class neighborhood of Hossein Abad, and in Tehran more and more disgruntled residents of the city's poor southern neighborhoods are joining the street protests. Many of the protesters are young people who, driven by a fatal mixture of desperation, curiosity and boredom, initially join the marches and, provoked by the violence of pro-government forces, eventually resort to throwing stones. Western observers say that the street scenes are almost reminiscent of the 1968 unrest in France and Germany.
Even Khamenei is said to have been taken off-guard by the determination of the protesters. Until now, the revolutionary leader was considered untouchable, but now the words "down with the dictator" are resonating throughout the country. Opposition representatives claim that Khamenei was temporarily flown by helicopter from his residence in northern Tehran to barracks of the Revolutionary Guard, also known as the Pasdaran, which has remained loyal to him. "It can't go on like this for much longer," Saeed Montazeri, 47, the son of the grand ayatollah, said in an interview with SPIEGEL. Montazeri, a levelheaded religious scholar with the title of hojatoleslam, also warned against the collapse of the theocratic state.
The leadership's fear of its own people is the consequence of an historic miscalculation on the night of the June 12 presidential election. With rarely seen audacity, Ahmadinejad declared himself the winner, even though the votes were a long way from being fully counted, and his most dangerous challenger, Mousavi, was probably running at least neck-and-neck with him.
In retrospect, it seems likely that election results were rigged in many districts to secure Ahmadinejad's reelection, apparently with Khamenei's support. This notion is reinforced by the fact that, despite all the protests, the revolutionary leader was suspiciously quick to congratulate his favorite, Ahmadinejad.
But contrary to what appeared to be the regime's expectations, millions of Mousavi supporters were not willing to accept the results. Three days after the election, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tehran for the largest protest march since the overthrow of the shah and peacefully chanted: "Where is my vote?" Leading the protest march was Mousavi, in his shirtsleeves and with a microphone in his hand.
Mousavi, once a bland technocrat, seemed to relish his new role as a people's leader and challenged the leadership by staging additional protests. The government struck back and eventually started shooting at protesters. Photos of the death of music student Neda quickly circled the world via the Internet, and she became an icon of the movement.