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Iran: Rushdie Pledge Hailed As 'Historic Breakthrough'

  • Ben Partridge

London, 25 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has announced that it will do nothing to threaten the life of British author Salman Rushdie, who has been under a death threat for almost 10 years on the grounds that he insulted Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

The announcement was hailed as a breakthrough in the Rushdie affair, although the writer's life could still be at risk from hardliners.

The move came after British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook met Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Kharrazi had this to say :

"The Government of the Islamic republic has no intention, nor is it going to take any action whatsoever, to threaten the life of the author of 'The Satanic Verses' or anybody associated with his work."

This represents a major concession by Iran, which has been trying to improve its relations with the outside world since the presidential election victory last year of moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami. The statement was welcomed by Rushdie, who was condemned in a "fatwa," or edict, issued by Iran's revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989.

Rushdie, who has spent almost 10 years in hiding under a round-the-clock British police guard, said: "It looks like it's over." Asked what the statement meant to him after his long ordeal, he said: "It means everything, it means freedom."

Iran's action brought an immediate resumption of diplomatic relations between London and Teheran. In a BBC interview, Cook called it "an historic breakthrough."

"This is an historic breakthrough. The language that the government of Iran has used on this occasion, following our discussions with them, goes much further than we've ever had out of Iran before. They have said they will not take any action to threaten the life of Salman Rushdie, nor will they support anyone else in doing so. And that commitment also applies to others who have been involved in the publication or translation of 'The Satanic Verses.' That's a big step forward."

Cook told Kharrazi that the British government recognized the fundamental role of Islam in Iranian life and, in Cook's words, "understood and regretted the offense that 'The Satanic Verses' has caused to Muslims in Iran and elsewhere in the world." But Cook also underlined that Britain believed in an individual's right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cook admitted that Iran's position stopped short of a repeal of the fatwa. But Iran claims --and the British Government accepts-- that the fatwa could have been reversed only by Ayatollah Khomeini, who died nine years ago.

Iran's statement also dissociated the Government from any reward offered for Rushdie's life. This was a reference, although not by name, to a 2.5-million-dollar bounty offered by Iran's Fifteenth of Khordad militant Islamic group. There was no comment from the group (which takes its name from the date when Khomeini went into exile in 1963).

'The Satanic Verses' affair caused fury among Muslims around the world, brought threats to Rushdie's publishers and translators --the Japanese translator of the book was fatally stabbed in 1991-- and was a key factor in Iran's international isolation. With yesterday's assurance Rushdie will not be pursued by Iran's Government or its agents, observers say the Khatami leadership has taken a big step toward normalizing relations with the outside world.