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Leading Article: Welcome overtures, but don't forget the basic principle

DECIPHERING THE utterances of the Iranian leadership requires some of the same skills as understanding Sinn Fein's statements. Just as we once mused over the meaning of the words "total cessation of hostilities", now the puzzle is what "completely finished" means in respect to the Salman Rushdie affair.

The phrase, used by the Iranian president while speaking to the world's media at the UN, should be treated with caution. Iranian officials continue to insist that the fatwah death sentence, passed on Mr Rushdie by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, will not be revoked. Indeed, they argue that it cannot, since it is an infallible religious statement. And the position of the Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, is still far from secure: there are many fundamentalists remaining inside Iran itself who would love to see him fail.

All the same, private overtures from the Iranians are to be welcomed. Iran does presently seem to be set on a rapprochement with the West. In that situation, Mr Rushdie's prospects of being "pardoned" do appear rather good, even if he may have to wait a little longer. Religious fundamentalism may bend to political reality: Khomeini being long in his grave, it seems possible that the religious authorities can commute his judgement, even if faith dictates they cannot overturn it.

We should still ask how we came to be in this situation in the first place. One of the reasons was the spineless reaction of the British authorities to an attack on a fundamental point of principle: the right of its citizens to free speech. There seemed to be an element of latent racism in the then Conservative government's failure to stand up to Iran: the attitude of many on the right seemed to be that Mr Rushdie was an outsider, stirring up trouble, and ought to shut up. On the left, many felt unable to speak out against Iran, lest they come to seem anti-Islamic, or racist. In our renewed contacts, Britain ought to be more confident in defending a British citizen.

These contacts should still genuinely aim at agreement, however. For one thing, they are the only way of getting the fatwah lifted. There is also the wider political situation to be considered: success would bring great benefits for British foreign policy. For too long Iran's hatred of Western values has been warmly and irrationally reciprocated. Iran's potential role as peacekeeper and stable arbiter in the Gulf region has been ignored. Who else are we to deal with? Taliban-controlled Afghanistan? Saddam Hussein's Iraq? If we are not to stumble into a new Cold War, this time with the Islamic world, it is time to build bridges with Iran while its policy remains moderate.

Other benefits would flow from a more open-minded policy. The regions Iraq borders are becoming tinderboxes. The Israelis and Palestinians are slipping back into confrontation; India and Pakistan threaten each other with nuclear destruction; Afghanistan's chaos threatens to spill over its borders. Settling the Rushdie issue would open the way to renewing diplomatic relations, boosting Britain's influence in the region and encouraging Iran to assist in managing these crises.

All of this should encourage us to engage in tough, but open-minded, negotiations. Power politics dictate that Iran, should make an opening to the West, her economy ailing; she needs friends to guarantee aid, markets, and loans. Britain should make clear that cordial relations are possible, in the event of co-operation.

But whatever else happens, there should be only one aim: the lifting of a virtual death sentence on a British citizen who has done nothing more than exercise his civil rights, and who deserves our wholehearted support. It is time that Mr Rushdie was no longer forced to live in the shadows.