A GROWING moderation in Iran is what some observers say is responsible for a recent agreement that limits the role and aspirations of Iranian-inspired Shiite radicals in Lebanon. The agreement at least temporarily ends a year of intra-Shiite fighting between Hizbullah (Party of God) and the mainstream, Syrian-backed Amal (Hope). While it doesn't deal with the fate of 15 or so Shiite-held Western hostages, some Shiite sources say new kidnappings by Iranian-inspired groups are unlikely.
``The personnel of all international institutions, such as the Red Cross, are now safe,'' said one Amal official.
The accord, signed Jan. 30 in Damascus, Syria, appears designed to increase attacks against Israeli forces and their proxy army, the Lebanese-manned South Lebanon Army.
For the time being, while not giving up its long-term goal of carrying the struggle over the border into Israel itself, Hizbullah will concentrate on ``liberating'' the ``security zone'' Israel maintains in south Lebanon. Amal shares that aim.
``The whole agreement was based on the idea of resistance [to the Israelis] and the return of the resistance to the south,'' said Sheikh Abbas Musawi, one of the five Hizbullah signees. ``As long as there is this point of agreement ... there will be no room for differences between us and Amal.''
The agreement calls for the establishment of a joint operations room to coordinate attacks on the Israelis. At the same time, it also gives both parties the right to carry out ``separate operations.''
Amal officials believe this means that the joint operations room must be informed in advance of any attacks planned by either faction.
``But they cannot trust us, and we cannot trust them enough to tell them our plans in advance,'' says a Hizbullah source. ``And if we carry out an attack, and the Israelis retaliate against Amal, Amal will turn on us.''
While their leaders speak of opening a new page of cooperation and brotherhood, sources in both of the rival Shiite camps are reserving judgment about the chances of the accord working.
It does not eliminate their long-term strategic and philosophical differences. Nor can the stroke of a pen in Damascus eradicate the bitterness sown by a fratricidal struggle which has claimed at least 150 lives this year alone, and hundreds of others since it first broke out last spring.
Political analysts say the accord leaves the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran intact. They believe that, to preserve that alliance, the Iranians persuaded their Hizbullah allies to adopt a more pragmatic course.
Sheikh Musawi denied that Hizbullah had been pressured by Iran or Syria, especially on the issue of granting Amal the right to control security in the south. ``Both sides made concessions for the common good,'' he said, pointing to Amal's acceptance of Hizbullah as a political force as a major achievement.
But Amal sources said that Hizbullah initially refused to sign the accord. Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati flew back to Tehran to muster further pressure on the Lebanese radicals.
One element in the accord which observers saw as evidence of a moderating influence from Tehran was the pledge not to harm United Nations peacekeeping forces or the personnel of international organizations.
The first round of fighting between the two factions was triggered by the abduction in south Lebanon a year ago of US Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins, who was serving as a UN truce observer. The UN role in the south is strongly supported by Amal, but was opposed by Hizbullah, which accused it of shielding Israel.
This was the closest the accord came to mentioning the issue of kidnapping and the Western hostages. Musawi said the pact had no connection with the hostage question, but expressed the hope that ``any such agreement would settle everybody's problems, foreigners or otherwise.''
Diplomats in Beirut, however, hope the agreement may at least allow all parties concerned - the Lebanese Shiites, Syria, and Iran - to turn their attention to the hostage issue again.