Rushdie's plight was never the point. The moderates had to oust the fundamentalists to make friends with the West
WHATEVER else the British may have achieved with last week's agreement with Iran, Salman Rushdie's safety cannot be guaranteed - and both governments know it. But perhaps that's not the point of the whole exercise. Rushdie is incidental - not central - to British-Iranian relations, which is why so much has been bartered in the deal.

The British government (and the Rushdie campaign committee) have acceded to the nine-year-old Iranian claims that the fatwa cannot be removed once issued by a legitimate authority - and you can't get more legitimate than Ayatollah Khomeini, Leader of the Revolution and de facto head of state. It has also accepted that the reward offered for a successful assassination of Rushdie lies outside the remit of the Iranian government.

The fatwa is still in force, the reward is still on offer - so what's so new that encourages Salman Rushdie to feel free to nibble publishing house canapes without fear of being poisoned by anything other than literary salmonella? The way to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain has been cleared by the very public declaration - by the Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi - of something that the Iranian government has been saying privately for years. But it has taken a long time to get this far - because of internal political battles inside Iran and the changing international situation rather than any sudden Iranian conversion to belief in international law and the freedom of speech.

Still, it took a lot of courage for President Khatami's government to go ahead with a full, public renunciation of a government-sponsored implementation of the fatwa. It shows how far the moderates have gone in their battle to get Iran accepted back into the international community with all the expected economic benefits that the country so desperately needs.

President Khatami has thrown down the turban to the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, the guardian of the law, who has inherited the leadership of those who still follow the uncompromising Khomeini principles.

Inside Iran (after the initial genuine revulsion at what the Iranians thought was in The Satanic Verses), the Rushdie Issue became the litmus test of what was regarded as the true implementation of the principles of Revolutionary Islam. Even though the Iranian foreign office and more pragmatic government ministers realised early on that the Rushdie issue was going to be a major sticking point in relations with the West, no one, not even the wily Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president, dared state what was said last week at the UN.

Thus, for the last six years, Iranian officials told journalists and the British Foreign Office that "no one was going to send paratroops after Rushdie". But six years ago that was not enough for the British, who insisted on the removal of the fatwa and the reward. Today it is the British who have accepted what they once would not, and that's because of the arrival of President Khatami, the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Gulf war - and the fact that Iran has quietly made itself the unofficial capital of the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union and the main access for new oil and gas discoveries in the Caspian littoral.

When Iran completed rail links with the economically important central Asian republics, and made Tehran the main junction, it went largely unreported in the West. But the size of oil and gas discoveries in the last few years has made good relations with Iran an economic imperative. Even the USA is warming to the idea that Iran is not a country composed solely of fundamentalist fanatics: 60 million potential customers sitting on the second largest natural gas deposits in the world are more than enough reasons to re-examine relations.

Alongside the obvious economic reasons for better relations with Iran, there have been encouraging signs that the fundamentalists no longer wield the power they once did. In the presidential elections, the Iranian electorate showed it had had enough of fundamentalist rhetoric, which seemed to have brought the country little but hardship and international condemnation. At the same time it did not seem to interfere with the importation of armoured Mercedes Benz cars for the radical clerics, and the export of capital to Switzerland and the leafy property markets of London, Paris and New York.

But is Rushdie any safer today than he was? True, it would be a very foolish Iranian official who made his government appear unable to deliver a promise so publicly made, but the danger to Rushdie was (and still is) going to come from an assassin from one of the "tinpot" organisations that, on Thursday, he dismissed as unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

From 1990, the Iranian government paid lip-service to the sacredness of the late Ayatollah's fatwa, stressing the immutability of the nature of the "legal" judgement, but only a few fanatics within the government structure actually believed that they should do anything about it. There were enough of these die-hards to worry the British security services, but for a long time it was clear that the Iranian government was pretty desperate to find a way out of the problem without losing face.

This has now been handed to them on a plate by a British government that now accepts that a fatwa is forever, but that times have changed in the make-up of the Iranian government.

Remnants of the reactionaries still hold power, but Tehran gossip claims that the "fundamentalists" must have been "neutralised" for the Iranian president to have sanctioned his foreign minister's statement.

The bazaar even whispers that the recent assassination of the notorious former head of Evin prison - a man who oversaw the execution of thousands of opponents in the civil war that raged in 1981 - was not the work of the discredited and hated MKO, but that of "moderates" showing their teeth.

It was said he knew too many secrets about government members who today protest their "moderate" credentials and wish to forget their bloody past. No one should ever underestimate the deadly seriousness of Iranian politics - especially not Salman Rushdie. But nine years is a very long time in international politics.

Back in 1989, the Afghan mujaheddin were the heroes who fought Russian imperialism with American missiles. Now, as the Taliban, they are the new bogey-men of Islamic fundamentalism, denounced by Iran as a "disgrace" to Islam, while their patrons, Pakistan, have tested the Bomb. Nine years ago Saddam Hussein was the bulwark of "Western" interests who had fought to "contain" revolutionary Iran. Today he has been revealed as the bloodthirsty monster he always was.

Nine years ago, Iran was just adjusting to the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini - its ministries run by clerics with their own agendas and intelligence organisations, any one of whom was quite capable of mounting a "holy" hit against Salman Rushdie. But they have been gradually weeded out.

For Nick Browne, the current charge d'affaires in Tehran, it is a personal triumph of hard negotiation over the formulae and presentation that would allow both governments to save face over their concessions.

Nine years ago, Browne was withdrawn when the fatwa was announced. Today he has helped put the genie back in the bottle.

In all the old stories, genies can be let out - but never destroyed. The British could have insisted that the Ali Khamenei issue a new ruling about Rushdie, and theoretically he has the power to issue a binding religious instruction to let Rushdie live, but that's gilt on the minaret. Anyway, it's always a poor young man who lets the genie out, never the ruling Vizier. And the young man succeeds where the Vizier has failed.

Ursula Owen, Culture, p14