Leading article: A gulf of understanding

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Thirty years ago Iran shook the world by unseating its pro-Western monarch and installing a religious regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. It was a shock to an international community still wedded to the easy assumption that revolutions could only come from the secular left and not the religious right. But it was also a shock to the Iranians themselves, who had dearly sought change from an authoritarian and corrupt royalist regime, but who little expected the clerical rule that would replace it.

Both the world and the Iranians have been trying to adjust ever since. The international community has done it largely by isolating a country it regards as a source of instability in a volatile region, countenancing if not actively encouraging an invasion from Iraq that cost Iran some 500,000 dead and wounded and casting the nation during the years of President Bush as a rogue state to be confronted, a would-be nuclear power that needed to be faced down.

The Iranians themselves meanwhile have coped through a combination of fierce nationalism in the face of outside pressure and an intricate play of power centres within. The ideals and the structures of the original revolution have remained intact, but the interplay of forces between conservatives and reformists, the technocrats and the clerics, the ageing generation of the revolution and the veterans of the Iran-Iraq war has been in constant flux. This is a country with a veritable profusion of blogs and one of the highest ratios of women in higher education in the world. It is also a country that still stones men for homosexuality and women for adultery.

Three decades on, it is time for the West to start anew with this nation of subtlety and sophistication. A new president has promised a different approach, one of conciliation. At the same time Iran itself is about to hold new presidential elections in which the tenure of President Ahmadinejad is under pressure thanks to a weakened economy and a collapsed oil price. No-one can be certain how far Iran is prepared to unclench its fist in answer to Washington's proferred hand. But after more than a generation of failed encirclement, it is right to offer it.

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