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London chips away at icy Iranian ties

BRITAIN has begun exploring a new policy toward Iran that could eventually lead to the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the two countries. Simultaneously, with encouragement from Iranian officials, four members of the British Parliament have held talks in Tehran with the Khomeini regime aimed at securing the release of three British hostages held by Iranian-backed Shiite extremists in Lebanon.

The two initiatives, though apparently separate, are part of an attempt by the British to put ties with Tehran on a better footing. The Iranians, too, have made it clear that they want contacts with London to improve.

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Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, has been sounding out leading Tory back-bench parliamentarians to get their support for restoring full diplomatic relations with Tehran. (Since mid-1987, following mutual expulsions, Britain and Iran have each had only one diplomat in the other's capital.) The parliamentarians Sir Geoffrey approached are members of the influential House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

The group of British MPs in Tehran - two Tories, one Labour, and one centrist - flew to the Iranian capital this past week at the suggestion of Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose envoy, Terry Waite, has been held hostage in Lebanon for 18 months. It was the first visit to Iran by such a British delegation since 1979.

One of the group, Conservative MP Cyril Townsend, expressed cautious hope after the talks that progress can be made. ``We are all united by the belief that the time has come to move on British-Iranian relations. Our motto is: Nothing ventured nothing gained,'' he said.

British hopes for an improvement in Anglo-Iranian relations began to rise in May when the Khomeini regime proposed talks between the two governments about paying for damage done to their respective embassies during disturbances some years ago. A team of Iranian diplomats then came to London and a broad agreement was reached on payments for the damage.

At the time, British official sources refused to confirm rumors that the delegation also discussed reestablishment of full diplomatic relations and the fate of the hostages. Since the team left London four weeks ago, however, the belief has grown that a breakthrough on the hostages is now possible.

The British insist there must be no bargaining over the hostages and are adamant that their release should not be traded for a restoration of diplomatic ties.

For their part, the Iranians have been taking a tough public stance too. Senior Iranian officials in Tehran told the British MPs that Britain should condemn Iraq for its part in the Gulf war. But in Whitehall it is thought that the demand is not critical, and that contacts should be able to continue.

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