Rushdie may get fatwa-free zone in EU

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in Luxemburg

The European Union is hoping to create what amounts to a fatwa free zone for the author Salman Rushdie.

Foreign ministers agreed yesterday to ask the Iranian government to guarantee not to carry out within the EU the death sentence pronounced on Mr Rushdie by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

The carrot for Tehran could be increased trade links to ease its economic crisis, which led to riots near the capital last week.

The EU plan would be modelled on an agreement last February between Denmark and Iran, which are important trading partners, after a meeting in Copenhagen.

France, which holds the EU presidency, will lead a mission to present the new proposal to Tehran, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday. He declined to give further details, saying: "The chances of making a success of this depend on a certain discretion."

If Iran accepted the plan it would improve Mr Rushdie's safety, because the Iranian state security apparatus, with agents throughout Europe, would be presumed to be no longer a threat. But it would not guarantee his life against freelance assassins keen to fulfil their religious duty to carry out the death sentence imposed for his novel The Satanic Verses, which was declared blasphemous.

Efforts to make Iran rescind the fatwa are doomed to failure, because the ruling clergy maintains that it is an irreversible theological document. But there is a pragmatic strand in Iran's Muslim theocracy which might be willing to compromise.

However, the international publicity attached to an EU plan may prompt hardliners to campaign against "betrayal" of the late ayatollah's edict.

None the less, European ministers - and Mr Rushdie, who is being guarded by Special Branch officers - believe that it is worth a try.

Mr Rushdie recently met President Franois Mitterrand, and has also had discussions with leading EU figures in Brussels. Britain appears constrained from discussing the matter by a desire not to compromise what could be delicate negotiations between Paris and Tehran rather than any doubts over the plan.