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IRAN EDGES BACK INTO GLOBAL ARENA

Maybe it stems from his own background as a journalist and editor. Or maybe it's just a coldly practical realization that his country needs to end its pariah status.

Whatever the reason, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to back away from author Salmon Rushdie's death sentence are welcome news.

Rushdie, a British writer, has been living under the threat of assassination ever since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 religious order to have him killed. The reason? Because his book "The Satanic Verses" supposedly was blasphemous.

Lest anyone think this order and accompanying bounty were just rhetoric, translators of the book were subsequently killed or wounded in Italy, Turkey and Japan.

The effort to kill Rushdie -- and intimidate other authors -- simply because of what he wrote was an outrageous infringement on intellectual freedom. It was condemned even in nations that don't have this country's First Amendment sensibilities.

While not going so far as to try to cancel the ridiculous -- but lethal -- edict, Khatami observed that Iran should "consider the Salmon Rushdie matter completely finished." That indicates that the relatively reform-minded president is continuing to nudge Iran back toward the international community.

Washington should welcome that overture, as minimal as it seems. And it should reciprocate with language that advances this diplomatic minuet because the United States needs an Iran that is on board in the fight against international terrorism and that doesn't act as a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

Ongoing problems between the international community and Iraq, and the rise of the frightening Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan, are just two of the reasons that Iran -- which shares borders with both those nations -- is vitally important to stability in that critical part of the world.

Formal relations between Washington and Tehran have been non-existent since the 1979-80 hostage crisis, and Khatami made clear that governmental exchanges are not on the near horizon. But that is not the only way for countries to thaw relations.

Visits by private citizens -- sometimes carrying governmental messages -- as well as back-channel discussions can help tear down the diplomatic wall.

Substantive obstacles -- such as U.S. sanctions on Iran and powerful Iranian religious leaders who don't share Khatami's attitude -- still exist.

But in effectively lifting the Rushdie death sentence and indicating at least that much willingness to adhere to international norms, Khatami has opened the door to better relations just a tiny bit more.