Fatwa hopes rise as Cook begins talks

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The Independent Online
A MEETING in New York today between the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, could mean a "new era" in relations with Iran if a breakthrough is achieved on ending the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Foreign Office minister, Derek Fatchett, said yesterday.

At the same time, however, Mr Fatchett insisted that the Government did not yet know whether the meeting, to be held on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly, would result in a pledge from Mr Kharrazi effectively to lift the threat against Rushdie's life. "We need to see the words," he told reporters.

Hopes for a de facto suspension of the fatwa, delivered against the British author in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, were fanned by remarks made in New York on Tuesday by the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami. "We should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished," he said.

"Clearly this is an important meeting. The fact that it is taking place is important," Mr Fatchett noted. "If this a breakthrough, then that heralds a new set of relations and a new era in relations between Britain and Iran." A resumption of diplomatic ties would involve the appointment of ambassadors by both countries in each other's capitals.

The minister said signs that Tehran was enthusiastic about repairing relations with Britain included a message of condolences sent by the Iranian government to London after the Omagh bombing last month.

Hitherto, Britain has insisted diplomatic relations could be re-established only if Iran provides a written assurance that it would not act upon the fatwa. Because it was made by a religious leader, the edict sentencing Rushdie to death cannot be annulled by the government in Tehran.

Mr Fatchett was evasive yesterday when he was asked whether such an assurance would still need to be delivered in written form.

"We are looking for Iran, on Rushdie, to be in a position where it would not be acting as a threat to his life as a United Kingdom citizen," he said. "We will be looking for a real commitment for a guarantee of his safety. We will have to see how the Iranians want to express that, if they want to express anything at all. Let's say that if they do produce something, we will have to see what that is and we will have to measure whether we're satisfied with that."

The minister conceded that Tehran could not be held responsible for the bounty on Rushdie's head. A $2.5m (pounds 4.1m) bounty has been offered by a wealthy revolutionary organisation, the 15th of Khordad Foundation, to any Muslim who kills the author.

Earlier this year, Iran accepted publicly that the fatwa, imposed on Rushdie after he allegedly blasphemed against Islam in his book The Satanic Verses, had become a stumbling block in its efforts to repair relations with the West.