After 21 years of official piety, violent repression, and a failed economy, the world's first Islamic state has embraced a reform it once denounced: open democracy.
Iran's 38 million voters choose a parliament Friday. A win for reformers has the potential to be as revolutionary as the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. It could shake the globe once again due to Iran's pivotal role in oil, theology, and geopolitics.
A parliament loaded with reformers may try to reverse the iron-fisted rule of Iran's clerics, sending a signal to radical Islamists everywhere and to the anti-Iran West.
From Algeria to the Philippines, Muslim extremism has largely failed or proved unpopular. And now - in the place that fired the first shot of Islamic fundamentalism heard 'round the world - a humbled clergy may be forced to accept that majority rule works better than rule by an unelected elite imposing a literal reading of the Koran.
The mere sight of Iran holding an election at all may be as significant an export to other Middle Eastern regimes as was radical Islam.
Who's pushing Iran's pendulum back to a moderate Islam, perhaps even to secular rule? Youth.
Half the population is under 20, which means they have no memory of the 1979 revolution. With the voting age set at 16, young people are an undeniable force in Iran today.
They've tasted the West through mass media. They've seen mass unemployment and clerical hypocrisy. They've heard chants against women wearing makeup.
Most of all, they've seen how the religious hard-liners kill intellectual dissidents (1998), attack students protesting the closure of a newspaper (1999), and oppose the piecemeal reforms of a moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami, who was popularly elected (1997) as president - much to the surprise of Iran's powerful clerical councils.
Mr. Khatami has been stymied by Islamic conservatives in his drive to install "rule of law" and to seek an opening to a West that still sees Iran as a maker of terrorists and nuclear bombs, and as anti-Israel.
Many reformers were barred from running in Friday's election, and Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has tried to paint reformers as decadent and "US puppets."
But the old rhetoric and repression are on the run, and Khatami and Mr. Khamenei may have an agreement to bring about slow reform in order to avoid a 1979-style explosion.
Such gradualism, if kept on track, can be encouraged in the West by letting up on some sanctions. To boost the economy and give hope to young Iranians, the World Bank and similar institutions can help bring Iran out of the fundamentalist cold and back into the international community.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society