Iran has existed since 1979 as an odd mix of autocracy and democracy, with the Supreme Leader holding ultimate power, but with elections for a president. The democracy was never real though; elections were never open and transparent. Human rights activists and journalists were consistently arrested at random, women were harassed in the streets by morality police, candidates were hand picked by Khamenei, to name just a few violations. Iranians were allowed certain freedoms, just enough to survive; this coupled with a pervasive and much feared Revolutionary Guard and basij, kept many at bay.
But as we see today, when Iranians' rights were challenged and disregarded in such a blatant way, they took to the streets, challenging the regime, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij.
Roger Cohen stated today in the NYTimes:
Iranians have fought this lonely fight for a long time: to be free, to have a measure of democracy.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, understood that, weaving a little plurality into an authoritarian system. That pluralism has ebbed and flowed since 1979 — mainly the former — but last week it was crushed with blunt brutality. That is why a whole new generation of Iranians, their intelligence insulted, has risen.