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A couple of days ago, I finally came across some encouraging news from the Middle East. No, it had nothing to do with the Israeli-Arab peace process, or the Palestinian-Israeli non-negotiations. There's precious little there to encourage anyone. The news came from Tehran.

It seems that Iran has been hooked to the Internet, and all its mullahs are in a dither. They're fascinated by the idea of spreading Mohammed's Word throughout cyberspace, but frightened near to death that some poor innocent Iranian civilian will get a gander of all the terrible ideas and pictures floating around out there.

The Iranian government is frantically trying to set up a system to centralize access to the Internet in the Telecommunications Ministry, where dozens of little censors are screening thousands of Internet sites for decency. Many are to be blocked (beginning with, either judged pornographic, theologically suspect or politically unsound.

Meanwhile, according to Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, scientists and clerics alike are clamoring to be allowed to hook up.

"The brains of the young are very impressionable," one official was quoted as saying.

They are also damnably sharp, which means the mullahs have lost this one before they even start.

First, the number of Internet sites is growing exponentially. There is no way anyone can screen them as fast as they appear. With low-cost Net-design software universally available, every company, organization, individual or association in existence will soon have its own page.

Second, the Internet is, among other things, a community that contains large numbers of people both dedicated to the absolute free flow of information, and technologically competent beyond any comprehension by Iran's leaders, most of whom long ago slammed shut their mental shutters and drew the curtains tight. Many members of that community are teen-age geniuses who will undoubtedly think it both a moral imperative and a great lark to circumvent any blocks or limits any government, let alone an autocratic one, can set up. They'll also be happy to teach Iran's own teen-agers in the process, I'm sure.

But it means more than just kids' games, though I shudder to imagine the effect of some of the more outrageous virtual encounters available on the Net on some poor young cloistered Persian's mind. It also means the completely free exchange of ideas and information, with anyone, anywhere. And that, as any good dictator knows, spells the eventual end of all dictatorship.

Dictators in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Africa, Asia and South America have discovered this truth: No tanks, no secret police, no army, no matter how large, efficient or ruthless, can stop a people from becoming free once their minds are freed, and filled.

The more fundamentalist brands of Islam have always been uncomfortable with secular education. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, which officially made their peace with secular science centuries ago, conservative Islamic leaders invariably have tried to put strict limits on the freedom to learn. They know that enquiring minds are unlikely to stop at the boundaries marked out as holy, including the leaders' holy right to rule.

Now, with every Internet log-on, those limits will be tested. With every connection made to the rest of the world, a little freedom will leak in. It won't take long -- things move much faster in the Age of Communications and Technology. The Nerds will win. And so will everyone else.

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