Britain and Iran move toward diplomatic ties

After years of stress and strain - and occasional violence - in their relations, Britain and Iran have decided the time may be ripe to move on to better terms. As a result, Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, meets today in New York with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Velayati. Their meeting is expected to be a prelude to restoring ties between the two countries.

The determination to restore diplomatic links is expected to produce a renewal of commercial activity. And, London hopes for the eventual release of three British hostages held in Lebanon and two British prisoners in Iranian jails.

It has taken months to reach the point where normalization of ties is possible. Anglican church officials, concerned about British hostages, have pressed behind the scenes for government contacts between London and Tehran.

Soon after the Aug. 20 Gulf war cease-fire, the British Foreign Office dispatched a senior diplomat to Tehran to explore the possibility of restoring diplomatic ties. His mission led to meetings this week in Geneva between British and Iranian officials.

Until these talks, contacts between London and Tehran had been virtually frozen since 1987. That was when British police arrested an Iranian vice-consul for shoplifting. In retaliation, Revolutionary Guards beat up a British diplomat in Tehran. London recalled its envoys from Tehran, and Iran left one official at its London mission.

Three factors have helped trigger a change in Britain's approach:

Three months ago Britain and Iran reached agreement on mutual compensation for damage to embassy buildings in their respective capitals.

Iran agreed to accept UN Security Council resolution 598, which led to a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war.

Britain decided that, lacking diplomatic representation in Tehran, it was poorly placed to take advantage of new political conditions that seemed to make feasible the release of British hostages and prisoners.

Diplomatic sources here say Sir Geoffrey will insist that relations be restored at the level of charg'es d'affaires. Only if relations improved would ambassadors likely be exchanged.

Britain hopes the two British businessmen held in Tehran jails will be released soon after relations are restored. It is more cautious about the fate of the hostages believed held by Shiite Muslim radicals in Lebanon, who often look to Iran for direction.

Iran has said it will do everything possible to secure their release, but says it has no direct influence over the groups holding the hostages. There is concern among some British officials that, having achieved a diplomatic rapprochement, Iran will forget the hostages.

On the other hand, Britain and Iran have much to gain if the hostages are freed. Iran needs help in reconstruction after eight years of war, and British companies are keen to secure these contracts.

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