DEVELOPMENTS in Beirut, Damascus, and Tehran have created a climate of cautious optimism that things may be starting to fall into place for the release of the eight American hostages in Lebanon. While President Hashemi Rafsanjani has been consolidating his grip on power in Tehran, excluding or absorbing hard-line elements there, a similar process has been under way among Iran's Shiite followers in Lebanon.
Radical Hizbullah figures, who might have obstructed a hostage release as part of Iran's reopening to the outside world, have been marginalized or isolated.
Iranian and Hizbullah sources in Beirut, and diplomats in Damascus, say that talks on the hostage issue have meanwhile been going on between Syrian and United States officials. They say the Syrians have been authorized by Iran and Hizbullah to negotiate on their behalf in the discussions, held in the Syrian capital.
Shiite sources in Beirut see Washington's rift with the Lebanese Christian leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, in this context. They believe the evacuation of US diplomats from the Christian enclave in Lebanon on Sept. 6 may serve a broader US goal of resuming relations with Tehran and winning the release of the hostages.
Iranian and Syrian leaders had earlier indicated that settling the hostage issue would depend, for one thing, on US cooperation in defusing the Lebanese crisis in a way acceptable to Damascus and Tehran. Coordination between Syria and Iran over Lebanon has been greatly increased because of support for General Aoun from their mutual enemy, Iraq.
All this has created an expectation in Shiite and Iranian circles in Beirut of positive developments on the hostages as early as October, which has been dubbed ``the month of the hostages'' by some West Beirut sources.
But they caution that nothing specific has yet been agreed, and that surprise events could intrude to cause further delays.
Lebanese Shiite sources say that Hizbullah hard-liners, isolated by recent changes, are trying to regroup. While they - and their mentors in Iran - have not been totally suppressed, sources doubt that they will be able to exercise a strong disruptive effect.
``I don't think they can do much if Iran and Syria decide on something,'' said one Shiite source. ``Nobody in Hizbullah can be against Syria, Iran, the US and Israel all at the same time.''
The most clear loser in the new order is Hizbullah's former military chief, Hassan Nasrullah.
According to Iranian and Lebanese Shiite sources, Sheikh Nasrullah has been ``invited'' to stay in Iran for the foreseeable future, along with his family and some 70 hard-line supporters. He has been there since July, and is not expected back in Beirut. Sources say he has been enrolled for a three-year theological course at an Islamic seminary in Qom.
Nasrullah was always regarded as one of the most radical leaders of Hizbullah, and was a member of its top command body, al-Shura al-Markazi (the Central Council). He used to boast that he was the late Ayatollah Khomeini's ``favorite pupil,'' earning himself the nickname Khomeini-Lubnan (Khomeini-Lebanon).
An even more prominent figure who has lost out as a result of the new trends is Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, generally seen as Hizbullah's spiritual guide. Shiite sources say Sheikh Fadlallah has been left extremely isolated by Mr. Rafsanjani's switch to a more pragmatic, less revolutionary Iranian policy in Lebanon.
That policy crystallized in the recent accord, sponsored by Iran and Syria, ending 18 months of bitter feuding between Hizbullah and its mainstream Shiite rival, Amal. Fadlallah's followers were the strongest critics of the accord, and he avoided association with it.
Tehran is now cultivating close ties with Amal and with moderate Shiite clerics who compete with Fadlallah for recognition as the marja, the religious authority of the Shiite community. Within Hizbullah, Iran has switched its backing to figures such as Sheikh Subhi Tufeili and Sheikh Hussein Musawi, who are in tune with Syria and who supported the accord with Amal.
``Fadlallah has become very isolated, and has lost lots of ground both in Tehran and Beirut,'' a Shiite source said. ``All this has good implications for the hostages.''
While Fadlallah has frequently denied having any direct knowledge of the hostage business, many Shiite sources believe he has been much more directly involved than he publicly admits.
At one stage early this year, Rafsanjani is reported to have cut off all funds to Hizbullah in order to ensure that it swung into line behind his new policies.
While some dissenting voices continue to be raised in Tehran, Shiite circles in Beirut are convinced that it is only a matter of time before Rafsanjani will find a way of breaking the deadlock over the hostages and Iranian assets frozen by the US, and of moving toward a resumption of business with Washington. They believe that the changes among Iran's followers in Lebanon should enable him to deliver the hostages.