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The Farda Briefing: Iran Denies Role In Rushdie Attack Despite Praise In Hard-Line Media

Iranian front pages on August 13: Vatan-e Emrooz (front) reads "Knife In The Neck Of Salman Rushdie," and Hamshahri (back) with the headline "Attack On Writer Of Satanic Verses"
Iranian front pages on August 13: Vatan-e Emrooz (front) reads "Knife In The Neck Of Salman Rushdie," and Hamshahri (back) with the headline "Attack On Writer Of Satanic Verses"

Welcome back to the Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter.

I'm senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following and what I'm watching out for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Three days after British-American author Salman Rushdie was seriously wounded in a shocking knife attack in New York, Iran "categorically" denied any links with the suspected attacker, 24-year-old Lebanese-American Hadi Matar. The Islamic republic, however, managed to place the blame on Rushdie, who has lived under an Iranian death sentence since 1989 because of his novel The Satanic Verses, which some Muslims find offensive.

"We do not consider anyone other than himself and his supporters worthy of...reproach and condemnation," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a briefing on August 15. Tehran's statement was condemned by Washington as "despicable" and "disgusting."

Why It Matters: Tehran's first official response came amid praise for the stabbing attack in Iranian hard-line media, including the daily Kayhan. The newspaper’s editor in chief happens to be appointed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been supportive of the 1989 fatwa against Rushdie that was issued by his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran's government had in 1998 distanced itself from the fatwa, saying the death threat against Rushdie no longer existed. But Khamenei said in 2017 that the ruling is still in effect. In 2019, Khamenei's Twitter account was temporarily limited for saying that the fatwa was "irrevocable."

What's Next: It's still not clear whether the suspected attacker, Matar, acted alone or was following orders from Tehran. Police have said, citing his social media posts, that he is sympathetic to Shi'ite extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), while adding that the motive for the stabbing is "unclear."

A potential link with Tehran will result in increased concern over Iranian threats in the United States, where last week the U.S. Justice Department charged a member of the IRGC in connection with an alleged plot to kill former White House national security adviser John Bolton. If no direct connection is proven then many are still likely to blame Khomeini’s fatwa for the attack against Rushdie, which Iran’s Writers Association described as "a clear example of an attack on freedom of speech."

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Iranian opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi has angered Iranian authorities for questioning the country's regional policies, namely in Syria, and expressing concern that Khamenei's son could succeed him, making the leadership in the Islamic republic "hereditary." In a statement issued earlier this month, Musavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, blasted Iran's role in Syria, where the country has supported President Bashar al-Assad. He called senior IRGC General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed near Aleppo in 2015, a "dishonorable commander" while highlighting his role in cracking down on mass street protests over the 2009 disputed presidential vote.

The statement prompted officials to praise Hamedani and attack Musavi, who has refused to back down on his criticism of the Iranian establishment despite more than a decade of house arrest. The controversy demonstrated that the clerical establishment still fears Musavi, 80, who was arrested after challenging Khamenei over the 2009 election and human rights abuses.

There's growing concern over the fate of artist Sepideh Rashno, who was arrested in June following a dispute with a hijab enforcer on a public bus. Rashno appeared on Iranian state-controlled television late last month looking pale and distressed. The move was widely condemned as yet another example of Iran airing forced confessions on state TV, which has a record of broadcasting statements by activists extracted under duress.

On August 15, a group of activists were reported to have staged protests in several locations in Tehran, demanding to know the whereabouts of Rashno who, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency, had been beaten before being forced to appear on TV. Photos posted online on August 15 showed activists in the Iranian capital holding signs that asked: "Where is Sepideh Rashno?"

What We're Watching

Iran on August 15 sent its response to an EU text aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal and Brussels later said it is studying the Iranian response and consulting with other parties on the way forward. The United States said it will share its view on the Iranian response with the EU privately. Tehran's written response was sent after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian appeared to lay the foundation for an agreement, telling reporters: "What the people want from us is an outcome from these negotiations. They say you have negotiated and talked enough. The people demand results."

Why It Matters: An agreement is still far from guaranteed, and it is still not clear if Tehran will accept the EU proposed deal or ask for amendments. But there are positive signs as Bloomberg reported that the European Union views Iran's response to the proposed blueprint as "constructive" and a Western official was quoted by Politico as saying the Iranian reply doesn't sound "too inflammatory." An unnamed "informed source" was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as saying Iran is expecting a response from the EU in the next two days.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box every Wednesday.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Newsletter

The Farda Briefing is an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. Written by senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and other reporters from Radio Farda.

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