LONDON — HOPES are rising here that three British hostages held in Lebanon will be released and that an English businessman imprisoned without trial in Iran for five years on spying charges also will gain his freedom. Optimism in government circles here follows Iran's decision last week to restore diplomatic relations with Britain after a lapse of 18 months. But there is no guarantee that the fatwa, or death sentence, imposed by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on author Salman Rushdie will be lifted. The fatwa caused the rupture between the two states.
The hostages in Lebanon are Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy; John McCarthy, a television journalist; and Jack Mann, a World War II pilot. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations between London and Tehran, is believed to have assurances that Mr. Waite and Mr. McCarthy are alive and well. Iran has launched intensive efforts to secure their release.
Mr. Hurd was able to achieve the diplomatic breakthrough, partly because he had written a letter expressing regret at any hurt that had been caused to Muslims by ``The Satanic Verses,'' Mr. Rushdie's novel. Last week in a television interview, Rushdie said: ``The book did not set out to do the things that it has been accused of, which is to insult and abuse, but that is how people have read it. If people are angry and upset then I am very sorry.''
Rushdie's remarks appear to have enabled Hurd and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to reach agreement on a resumption of diplomatic relations. British officials later said that improved relations with Tehran had been made easier by Iran's support of UN resolutions imposing a trade embargo on Iraq.
Though Iran has given no guarantees, Hurd said the Iranians have promised to use their good offices to persuade the hostage-takers to release their prisoners.
The case of businessman Roger Cooper raises a different problem. He was taken into custody by a radical group within the Iranian government which was then dominated by Khomeini. That group, British diplomatic sources say, retains some influence. Britain hopes, however, that Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani will be able to persuade the radicals to drop the charges against Mr. Cooper and release him.
Paul Cooper, who lives in London, disclosed last Friday that his brother wrote a letter to the Iranian government a few weeks ago, saying that his continued detention should not be allowed to stand in the way of a resumption of diplomatic relations. Later Hurd had another meeting with Mr. Velayati at the United Nations and raised the issue of Roger Cooper's future.
Friends of Rushdie say he remains apprehensive about his safety and intends to remain out of sight for the foreseeable future. A day before diplomatic relations were restored, Velayati told Hurd that the fatwa was irrevocable. It has been reported that Tehran has lifted the $1.8 million bounty placed on Rushie's head. But this will not protect the author from a zealot determined to carry out the Iranian death sentence.
Church of England sources indicated this weekend they were optimistic that Waite, who has been held for more than 1,300 days, will soon be released. And McCarthy, captive for more than 1,600 days, was held by the same group as Irish schoolteacher Brian Keenan, who was released in August. But there is much more concern about the condition of Jack Mann, who at the time of his capture in July 1989 was already in poor health.
British and Iranian sources indicated this weekend that it would take about a month to reopen their respective diplomatic missions. In the meantime, British officials said, Hurd would continue to pursue ``important bilateral issues,'' including the fate of the Britons being held and the lifting of the fatwa on Rushdie. Gerald Kaufman, the Labour Party opposition's shadow foreign secretary, said last week that the speedy release of Roger Cooper would be ``a test by which the decision to resume diplomatic relations must be judged.''