Ali Ansari: This is a crucial moment... the government is out of control

The turmoil which has gripped Iran over the last week following the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri should finally lay to rest the myth of a middle-class protest by idealistic democrats out of touch with the realities of their own country, and remind us that this popular revolt is about much deeper issues than a rigged election.

It was Ayatollah Khamenei himself, in his first Friday Prayer sermon following the disputed election, who decided to turn the dispute from one about an election into one about his authority and that of the regime. Now it is about universal rights, governance and dignity. A political dispute – a little local difficulty – has thus been transformed into something far more serious, and for the first time this week, the government seems out of touch and out of control.

This is in many ways a crucial moment. Many of those who have hedged their bets will now begin to reassess their loyalties. Can Islam really be identified with Khamanei? Is Ahmadinejad really the best the Islamic Republic can do? Where in the Holy Koran – as demonstrators chanted – does it say you can sexually assault prisoners?

It is the brutality of the government response to the initial protests that has profoundly shaken Iranians, who are now confronted with an attempt to reimpose an extreme version of Divine Right.

The Iranians have responded forcefully, and with considerable courage, to these demands. This is not a disorganised mob, but a well-marshalled and coordinated crowd. Preoccupied with the events of 1978, observers earnestly cast around for a "leader". But this battle between accountability and autocracy has much more in common with an earlier movement, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.

There was no single leader then, but there was a powerful idea. And today the means of disseminating that idea is much more potent. With literacy over 90 per cent and more than 25 million registered internet users, and 50 million mobile phone accounts, the days of Divine Right monarchy are long past their sell-by date. Change is coming to Iran.

Professor Ali Ansari is director of the Iranian Institute at the University of St Andrews