Leading Article: Welcome overtures, but don't forget the basic principle

DECIPHERING THE utterances of the Iranian leadership requires some of the same skills as understanding Sinn Fein's statements. Just as we once mused over the meaning of the words "total cessation of hostilities", now the puzzle is what "completely finished" means in respect to the Salman Rushdie affair.

The phrase, used by the Iranian president while speaking to the world's media at the UN, should be treated with caution. Iranian officials continue to insist that the fatwah death sentence, passed on Mr Rushdie by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, will not be revoked. Indeed, they argue that it cannot, since it is an infallible religious statement. And the position of the Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, is still far from secure: there are many fundamentalists remaining inside Iran itself who would love to see him fail.

All the same, private overtures from the Iranians are to be welcomed. Iran does presently seem to be set on a rapprochement with the West. In that situation, Mr Rushdie's prospects of being "pardoned" do appear rather good, even if he may have to wait a little longer. Religious fundamentalism may bend to political reality: Khomeini being long in his grave, it seems possible that the religious authorities can commute his judgement, even if faith dictates they cannot overturn it.

We should still ask how we came to be in this situation in the first place. One of the reasons was the spineless reaction of the British authorities to an attack on a fundamental point of principle: the right of its citizens to free speech. There seemed to be an element of latent racism in the then Conservative government's failure to stand up to Iran: the attitude of many on the right seemed to be that Mr Rushdie was an outsider, stirring up trouble, and ought to shut up. On the left, many felt unable to speak out against Iran, lest they come to seem anti-Islamic, or racist. In our renewed contacts, Britain ought to be more confident in defending a British citizen.

These contacts should still genuinely aim at agreement, however. For one thing, they are the only way of getting the fatwah lifted. There is also the wider political situation to be considered: success would bring great benefits for British foreign policy. For too long Iran's hatred of Western values has been warmly and irrationally reciprocated. Iran's potential role as peacekeeper and stable arbiter in the Gulf region has been ignored. Who else are we to deal with? Taliban-controlled Afghanistan? Saddam Hussein's Iraq? If we are not to stumble into a new Cold War, this time with the Islamic world, it is time to build bridges with Iran while its policy remains moderate.

Other benefits would flow from a more open-minded policy. The regions Iraq borders are becoming tinderboxes. The Israelis and Palestinians are slipping back into confrontation; India and Pakistan threaten each other with nuclear destruction; Afghanistan's chaos threatens to spill over its borders. Settling the Rushdie issue would open the way to renewing diplomatic relations, boosting Britain's influence in the region and encouraging Iran to assist in managing these crises.

All of this should encourage us to engage in tough, but open-minded, negotiations. Power politics dictate that Iran, should make an opening to the West, her economy ailing; she needs friends to guarantee aid, markets, and loans. Britain should make clear that cordial relations are possible, in the event of co-operation.

But whatever else happens, there should be only one aim: the lifting of a virtual death sentence on a British citizen who has done nothing more than exercise his civil rights, and who deserves our wholehearted support. It is time that Mr Rushdie was no longer forced to live in the shadows.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash