Washington, 30 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- During Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's recent visit to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, he met with Western reporters and said, "We should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished."
Shortly thereafter, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said his government had "no intention nor will it take any action" to threaten Rushdie's life.
They were referring to a fatwa, or religious decree, passed by Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, shortly before he died. The fatwa sentenced British author Salman Rushdie to death for insulting the Prophet Mohammad in his book The Satanic Verses. An Iranian foundation offered $2.5 million to whoever carried out the sentence. As a result of the fatwa, Rushdie has been living under police protection and his movements have been severely restricted.
Observers eager to see the restoration of good relations between Iran and the West welcomed the announcements as the removal of a major obstacle. British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, after a meeting with Kharrazi, said their two countries could resume relations at the ambassadorial level.
Khatami has taken a brave, if not unprecedented, step in saying the Rushdie issue is finished. In 1992, Iran's speaker of Parliament, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri, said Iran would not send assassins after Rushdie. Around the same time, former President Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani urged that the issue be forgotten. Rafsanjani later distanced the government from the organization offering the bounty.
In Iran, attempts to change the fatwa are not entirely welcome. The newspaper Jomhouri Eslami, which often reflects the country's most conservative views, criticized Kharrazi for attempting to overturn the fatwa. Also, several religious leaders said that the fatwa remains in force.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel Movahedi-Lankarani said on Sunday "This fatwa is by no means revocable or changeable and it is the duty of all Moslems of the world to carry it out." Lankarani is one of the highest ranking religious figures in Iran, and he serves on the Assembly of Experts, a supra-governmental body which has the power to appoint and dismiss the country's supreme religious and political leader.
Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri, another member of the Assembly of Experts, said the fatwa remains in force and cannot be suspended or modified. On Sunday, Mazaheri said that "The execution of the divine death sentence remains a duty for every Muslim until the day of resurrection."
In the doctrine of Shia Islam, Iran's state religion, the rulings of current Grand Ayatollahs can supersede those of their predecessors. This is because all religious leaders are considered fallible and because their rulings may be appropriate for their time but may no longer be necessary or desirable. President Khatami, however, is not a Grand Ayatollah, he is a Hojatoleslam, which is roughly two ranks lower. He does not, therefore, have sufficient religious seniority to undo Khomeini's fatwa.
There are other theological reasons why the fatwa cannot be rescinded, according to Ayatollah Abdullah Vaez-Javadi-Amoli, a member of the Assembly of Experts who was close to Khomeini.
In February 1997 he celebrated the anniversary of the ruling against Rushdie. Javadi-Amoli said the fatwa could not be changed because it was "an edict (Persian: hokm) which is permanent (Arabic: hayy la yamut, does not die) and it will stay in place until it is carried out. ... We hope that it will not be long before the edict of the departed Imam (Khomeini) will be carried out in the best way possible."
Such comments from Iran's religious establishment should be expected. This is especially true during the run-up to the October 23 election for the Assembly of Experts. All candidates for the Assembly must pass a test of their religious knowledge. Significantly, this time the political inclination of candidates will be assessed, too. Candidates must emphasize their conservative credentials to please the Council of Guardians.
Rushdie's stand on the fatwa has only angered the Iranians and strengthened the hand of conservative elements. Last Friday, Rushdie refused to withdraw the book or apologize for any offense it might have caused. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mahmud Mohammadi reacted by saying: "The irrevocability of the late Imam Khomeini's fatwa is a fact." Kharrazi himself seemed to reverse his earlier statements. He said the fatwa could not be revoked. He also accused Rushdie of being offensive towards Moslems.
The debate over the fatwa and Rushdie's fate must be seen in terms of Iranian domestic politics. Candidates for the Assembly of Experts must emphasize their conservatism. Also, Khatami is facing increasing opposition from his political adversaries.
Earlier this year the conservative parliament gave the Interior Minister a vote of no-confidence and fired him. The mayor of Tehran, a close political ally of Khatami, is being tried on charges of corruption. Last week, Parliament again threatened to have the Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance dismissed.
Until Khatami's political base is solid, such debates in Iranian politics can be expected. Also, the Rushdie case should demonstrate the primary role of domestic politics in all countries, even ones as confusing as Iran.
(William Samii is a member of RFE/RL's Communications Division)