Militant Islam is on the ascendant almost everywhere around the globe - except in the nation that has experienced it longest and knows it best. In Iran, it is on the defensive and perhaps in retreat.
This situation has vast potential consequences. It derives from the fact that (putting aside the exceptional case of Saudi Arabia), militant Islam first attained power in Iran in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah. Twenty-three years later, Khomeini's aggressive, totalitarian project has left Iranians deeply disillusioned and longing for a return to normal life.
The population wants freedom from a regime that bullies them personally, tyrannizes them politically, depresses them economically and isolates them culturally. As in Afghanistan under the Taliban, suffering the ravages of militant Islam means (Rob Sobhani of Georgetown University notes) that Iranians now "know evil when they see it up close."
On an almost daily basis, Iranians manifest their wish to be free by skirmishing in newspapers, student dormitories, football stadiums and elsewhere. Most remarkably, disillusion has reached the ruling elite itself, as manifested earlier this month in a scathing letter of resignation published by Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri.
This nearly 90-year-old stalwart of the establishment had a part in overthrowing the shah, helped establish the regime's intolerance and occupied the position of Friday prayer leader (roughly equivalent to a bishop) in the historic city of Isfahan.
But now he's had enough.
He resigned because, as he poetically put it, he saw "the flowers of virtue being crushed and values and spirituality on the decline" by those who "sharpen the teeth of the crocodile of power." More specifically, he found the Islamic Republic spawned "crookedness, negligence, weakness, poverty and indigence."
Taheri's resignation was timed to coincide with large anti-regime demonstrations which lead to the arrest of more than 140 protesters. He then won the endorsement of nearly half of the deputies in Iran's parliament.
These and other indications of support prompted a highly unusual statement from President Bush advising that Iran's "government should listen" to its people. This declaration in turn nearly panicked the government, which then compelled Taheri to issue another statement, somewhat softening his critique.
All this has several implications.
* Iran's future: As a rule of thumb, when the apple of a regime's eye turns against it, the government is vulnerable. Taheri's rejection of the Islamic Republic is roughly analogous to the situation in Poland two decades ago, when the workers of that supposed "worker's paradise" rejected the Communist state that claimed to benefit them.
The Islamic Republic is not near collapse, for the rulers are ready to kill as many Iranians as it takes to keep power. Still, that much of the population - and even some of the leadership - despises the current authority means that regime change is just a matter of time.
* Democracy: By virtue of getting more or less what they wanted in 1979 (i.e., no shah), the Iranian population realized that it had control over and responsibility over its destiny.
This development, unknown among Arabic-speaking populations, has led to something quite profound and wondrous: a maturation of the Iranian body politic. It has looked at its choices and thumpingly comes down in favor of democracy and a cautious foreign policy.
The contrast between the maturity of Iranian politics and the puerile quality of Arab politics could hardly be greater. Yes, both are dominated by tyrannical regimes, but Iranians can see their way out of the darkness. It is conceivable that before too long, the apparently disastrous Iranian revolution of 1978-79 will be looked back on as the inadvertent start of something wholesome and necessary.
* Islam: Iranians have apparently begun a process of seriously thinking about Islam of the sort that must precede that religion's developing into a moderate and anti-militant influence.
Only Muslims who have suffered from the full debilitation inflicted by militant Islam over a period of decades, it seems, are immune to the charms of this totalitarianism and prepared to take on the challenge of finding an alternative vision to it.
In all, Iran finds itself in the wholly unaccustomed role of providing glimmers of good news to the outside world. The militant Islamic nightmare is far from over, but in that country, at least, the end is in sight.