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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Signs of thaw in Iran's Cold War
There are signs that Iran's feuding political factions may be starting to lay aside their bitter differences in the interests of national unity, under the pressure of a variety of outside threats and challenges - mostly emanating from American hostility.
So far, the movement towards national accord is tentative and reversible, but appears to come from decisions taken at the highest level.
It stems from a series of external issues which - after an initial display of superficial unity - actually appeared to aggravate the factional divisions in recent months.
First there was the American-led attack on neighbouring Afghanistan, and the subsequent stationing of Western forces there, in Iran's backyard.
Then in February Tehran was bracketed, along with its old enemy Iraq and North Korea, in President Bush's "axis of evil".
The climactic escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians further focused hostile American attentions on Iran, which is associated with Islamic militants.
All of this naturally produced numerous calls for national accord between the rival factions. But until recently, there has been little by way of real action in that direction.
Everybody had his own idea of the basis on which such a rallying should take place.
Hardliners told their reformist adversaries that it was time to shelve the demands for change, and prepare to defend the Islamic revolution.
Reformists retorted that the platform for coming together should be the wishes of the people, as expressed in all elections over the past five years, in which reformists have won sweeping majorities.
But now, there are some signs of a real effort to ease internal tensions in order to face the outside threat united.
One sign is an apparent new tolerance on the part of the hardliners who hold a lot of the real power, towards dissident, but peaceful, critics whom in the past they have done their best to suppress.
Sixty or so liberal opposition figures who were in fact rounded up and arrested last year on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime, have all been gradually released.
One of their leaders, Ebrahim Yazdi, who was away in America for cancer treatment for 18 months, came home on 20 April and was not arrested, although a warrant had earlier been issued.
The normally acrimonious atmosphere between the reformist and hardline newspapers has also suddenly warmed, following an article last week by a leading right-wing commentator.
Writing in the hardline daily Resalat, Amir Mohebian called for an end to what he called "the political cold war".
He said the liberal dissidents should not only be tolerated, but encouraged to be politically active.
"In this new phase, the broad umbrella of national entente must include all active forces in the political arena," Mr Mohebian wrote.
"Those who have been considered oppositionists in the past must now be given the opportunity to be politically active, of course within the bounds of the regime's constitution based on the Islamic Revolution."
It is certainly early days; but it does seem that the climate is being prepared for a domestic detente which would allow the country's leaders to formulate and pursue truly national policies on such vital issues as how to respond to the Palestinian crisis.
Another idea to be floated would be whether or not some kind of dialogue should be opened with Washington, in order to defuse the perceived American threat to Iran.
The old maxim, "United we stand, divided we fall", appears to be gaining ground.
Above all, it is the issue of relations with the US that seems finally to have galvanized Iranian leaders.
The fear is that if the Palestinian issue goes quiet, the Americans will renew their bid to overthrow Saddam Hussein - with Iran next on the list for hostile attention.
Some reformists have argued for months that dialogue must be started with Washington now, because if it is left till later, Iran will be in a much weaker position.
But because it is such a contentious issue, overtures to the US could only be made with the support of all factions and on the basis of a national entente which until now has been signally lacking.
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