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Next Step : A New World Order Finally Plays the Middle East : * The release of the last American hostages reflects a regional attitude shift that is not likely to be reversed.

December 10, 1991|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The release of the final three American hostages in Lebanon last week is the latest signal that the Middle East may finally be joining the "new world order."

Although the quantity and quality of change in that most troubled and volatile region still lags far behind other parts of the world, U.S. officials and private analysts believe that most states are now engaged in processes--economic, political or social--that cannot easily be reversed.

"There's been a big earthquake around the world and it's also shaking up the Middle East," said William B. Quandt, a National Security Council specialist in the Jimmy Carter Administration now at the Brookings Institution.

"Political liberalization has made better progress than real democratization. But the attempt to close off Mideast societies is pretty much at an end, with few exceptions."

Most of the changes augur well for the United States, which already has virtually unchallenged influence in the region. The atmosphere is growing ripe to improve or upgrade diplomatic relations with some countries, such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, or to move toward restoring ties with others, such as Iran.

Washington is also better positioned to put the squeeze on the last militant holdouts, notably Libya and Iraq, without an Arab backlash, while budding cooperation on counterterrorism is expected to slowly expand to include former rivals and state sponsors, specifically Syria.

With an added boost from the Soviet demise, new markets could open for American and Western consumer goods, technology and arms in every country that can afford them.

U.S. analysts caution that many of the shifts will take considerable time to fully take root. Washington should also not assume that the budding pluralism in these countries will always lead to the evolution of pro-American parties. Elections in Algeria and Jordan have resulted in Islamic groups emerging as the leading opposition force.

The release after almost seven years in captivity of Terry A. Anderson, the last American hostage, underscored the dramatic shifts in two of the region's most militant and controversial nations--Iran and Syria.

In Iran, the decision to use the Islamic republic's leverage over the Lebanese captors was, in fact, only one of the smaller changes over the past month. In November, Iran announced plans to overhaul its economy and shift foreign policy priorities.

To establish a free market, Tehran said it will lift controls on foreign investment, production and currency rates; deregulate banking; expand private ownership, and open a stock exchange. Iran's latest five-year development plan calls for $25 billion in foreign investment.

Instead of emphasizing export of its revolution, President Hashemi Rafsanjani told delegations from 128 countries attending a summit in Tehran that Iran's foreign policy will now be centered on "respect for territorial integrity as well as the social and religious values of other peoples."

Parliamentary elections scheduled for 1992--the fourth since the 1979 revolution--are expected to be the liveliest and most open to date.

The Islamic republic's slate is still far from clean. It has not yet severed ties with extremists, especially Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, although aid has dropped significantly during the past two years.

And in August, a French judge handed down an indictment against an Iranian government official for a role in this year's assassination of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had been living in exile in Paris for more than a decade.

But U.S. analysts and Administration officials believe that the revolution has altered its course. "Iran will now be much more of a normal state and less of a revolution," said Quandt. "It was bound to come, but it took a long time.

"That doesn't mean Iran will be a paragon of virtue, but it will play more by the normal rules of diplomacy and engage in less of the revolutionary stuff of the past."

After years of being the U.S. nemesis in the Mideast, Syria has done a more visible about-face, which was most evident in the participation of its troops under U.S. command against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

But Syria's willingness to sit down across from Israel in U.S.-orchestrated peace talks--rather than play the role of spoiler, as Damascus has done so often in the past--is widely interpreted as a more convincing sign of changing policies.

This year, U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials also held their first formal discussions in Damascus with their counterparts on a host of contentious issues. Among them were the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270, Syrian support for Palestinian hard-liners, the operation of terrorist training camps in Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley and, of course, the American hostages.

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