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Glints of restraint in revolutionary Iran

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Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East, by R.K. Ramazani. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1987. 311 pp. $27.50. During the first week of the TWA 847 hostage ordeal, Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani summoned Lebanon's Islamic militants to Damascus.

Tehran was sympathetic to their demand for the release of 766 Shiite and Palestinian prisoners taken from Lebanon to Israeli jails in violation of the Geneva Convention. But he also made it clear that the Islamic republic did not want to see another prolonged crisis over new American hostages.

This meeting laid the groundwork for the release on July 1, 1985, after 17 days in captivity, of the final 39 American hostages. Iran's helpful role, which the White House reluctantly acknowledged at the time, also set the scene for the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages swap.

Two things had become clear during the hijacking: Iran, not Syria, was the channel through which to negotiate the freedom of the other Americans picked up off the unruly streets of Beirut. And, more important, at least some Iranians appeared to be willing to negotiate.

This apparently came as a surprise to the White House's inner circle. Yet several earlier developments should have signaled a greater flexibility and pragmatism in Iran's foreign policy, R.K. Ramazani points out in ``Revolutionary Iran,'' one of the timeliest books of the year.

``With respect to every issue, including the war with Iraq, Iranian policy has consistently contained elements of self-restraint, pragmatism, and even, occasionally, helpfulness,'' he wrote in a manuscript completed before America's secret ``strategic initiative'' was disclosed.

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