Britain steps up contacts with Iran. Move coincides with increased church activity to gain hostage release

The British government has decided to begin warming up its frozen diplomatic relations with Iran. Hopes are rising that the move will speed the release of three British hostages held by Shiite extremists in Lebanon. As part of its attempt to mend ties with Tehran, London's Foreign Office plans to send a middle-ranking envoy there at the end of August. He will be a specialist on Iranian politics, and will carry a brief advising the leadership in Tehran that Britain is anxious for better relations.

The envoy will not demand the release of the hostages, who include Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy. But he will argue that diplomatic relations can be restored if Iran begins to treat British diplomats correctly by ensuring that there is no political intimidation of them, refrains from sponsoring terrorism, and permanently halts attacks on merchant shipping in the Gulf.

The decision to dispatch a British envoy to Tehran came after recent talks between Foreign Office officials and Iran's charg'e d'affaires in London, Akunzadeh Basti.

It also coincided with an increase in church activity aimed at securing the hostages' release.

In two related moves, the Church of England arranged for Australia's Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Rev. David Penman, to visit Tehran, and for the Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Rt. Rev. John Brown, to travel to Lebanon on a special mission.

Both bishops were on their way to the Lambeth Conference in London. When they arrived in the British capital they told Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie about the contacts they had made.

While no details were made public, these events have strengthened a perception that chances of the hostages' release are improving.

In June four members of Parliament visited Tehran for informal talks with Iranian leaders. Last weekend, following Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brief Gulf visit, the Iranian news agency said there had been a significant change in the British leader's attitude to Iran.

Iran's decision to accept UN resolution 598, which calls for a cease-fire and a negotiated settlement in the Gulf war, has given the Thatcher government an opening to explore improved relations with Iran, which have been frozen since June.

Britain has insisted there can be no hostage deals, but there is considerable public and particularly church pressure on the authorities in London to adopt a more vigorous approach to the issue.

When he arrived in London from Tehran, Archbishop Penman said Mrs. Thatcher's recent statements on Iran had been helpful.

``Better relations can be built, and that would be better for all the hostages,'' he said.

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