Rushdie thaw to benefit business

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN HOPES to capitalise on the new economic and diplomatic opportunities created by the end of the impasse over the writer Salman Rushdie when Derek Fatchett, Foreign Office minister, visits Tehran in the next few weeks.

The resolution of an affair which has soured ties in the nine years since the late Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa - an exhortation to murder- against Mr Rushdie was, in the words of Mr Fatchett yesterday, the product not of "cloak-and-dagger" secret meetings, but of "old fashioned conventional diplomacy" as both sides took advantage of last year's election of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

Two gestures within the past month set the stage for the agreement in New York - Iran's public expression of condolence for the victims of the Omagh bombing, and the condemnation by Britain of the murder of nine Iranian diplomats by Taliban militiamen in Afghanistan. Both went well beyond the norms of the frosty relations between the two countries, signalling a shared desire to bury the hatchet. A formal upgrade of ties to the ambassadorial level is now likely even before a Fatchett visit.

British officials acknowledge Tehran's move is no guarantee of Mr Rushdie's safety, and that the $2.5m (pounds 1.5m) price on his head still stands, even though the Iranian government has disassociated itself from from the bounty. But the threat had been greatly reduced, said Mr Fatchett, who even dared hope Tehran would tip off the British authorities if it got wind of any plans by fanatics to assassinate the writer.

So, with the air cleared, the two countries can address themselves to a host of pressing issues. Britain's priority is to ensure Iran sticks to its non-proliferation pledges and does not acquire nuclear or chemical weapons.

Another aim is to enlist Iran's help in stemming the flow of drugs from neighbouring Afghanistan, where more than 90 per cent of the heroin on Britain's streets is believed to originate. It is no co-incidence, officials point out, that the price of heroin in Iran has risen steeply following its massive troop deployments near the Afghan border, which have severed many trafficking routes.

Meanwhile the important Iranian market beckons for British firms, especially in the oil and gas field. Britain enjoys a large surplus (pounds 360m in 1997), but trade should now grow substantially, especially if Iran ends its suspected discrimination against British suppliers.

But the longer term repercussions of the thaw could be most significant. After Britain's deal on Rushdie, the US stands even more isolated in its sanctions against Tehran, which are now the main - if not the sole obstacle - in the way of a pipeline across Iran carrying the oil and gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to its deep water port at Bandar Abbas.

For the oil industry that proposal is vastly cheaper, much simpler and preferable to the alternative of a pipeline to either Russia or Turkey's Mediterranean coast. If the US relents, Iran's economy would receive a massive fillip.

Finally, there is Iraq, with whom Iran fought an eight-year war in the Eighties. Iran's rapprochement with Britain which, along with the US, is Saddam Hussein's most outspoken foe among the allies which liberated Kuwait, can only alarm the Iraqi dictator and increase his sense of isolation.

1988-1998: THE RUSHDIE YEARS

THE SATANIC VERSES IS PUBLISHED

In September 1988, The Satanic Verses is published by Viking/Penguin. The title comes from the verses that the Prophet Mohamed removed from the Koran for being "inspired by the devil". Muslims are offended by passages discussing the sexuality of the Prophet;the book is banned in India. It wins the novel section of the prestigious Whitbread prize.

BOOK BURNINGS AND RIOTS

In Bradford, more than 1,000 Muslims take to the streets burning copies of the hardback and effigies of Rushdie. By January 1989, WH Smith's withdraws the book for a month. Protest demonstrations in Pakistan on 12 February lead to five deaths while a mob attacks the British embassy in Tehran.

THE FATWA IS ANNOUNCED

On 14 February 1989, The Ayatollah Khomeini announces a fatwa, calling on Muslims to carry out a death sentence on the writer. Rushdie immediately cancels a promotional tour in America and goes into hiding. An Iranian cleric offers a $1 million bounty to any foreigner and nearly three times as much to any Iranian willing to kill Rushdie

RUSHDIE GOES INTO HIDING

Rushdie is placed under 24-hour protection from Special Branch and has been constantly on the move. The cost of the operation has been estimated at up to pounds 1million a year. Rushdie has contributed. As many as 20 Iranians have been expelled from Britain under suspicion of being involved in plots to carry out the fatwa.

RUSHDIE MAKES CONCESSIONS

Rushdie apologises for causing distress, although in 1990 he defends the book in a 7,000-word essay. He attempts conciliation with Iran, donating pounds 5,000 to the Iran earthquake appeal and announcing a willingness to "embrace Islam". But in December 1990, the Ayatollah reiterates the fatwa.

THE DOMESTIC STRAIN

In August 1989, Marianne Wiggins, Rushdie's second wife, abandons their life in hiding and attacks him as self-obsessed and vain. Last August, Rushdie marries Elizabeth West, his partner of three years, with Zafar, Rushdie's son from his first marriage to Arts Council worker Clarissa Luard, as best man. He and Elizabeth have a young son, Milan.

RUSHDIE BREAKS COVER

In December 1990, Rushdie attends a book signing in north London and broadcasts live on Radio 4's Start the Week. After 18 months of invisibility, he visits the US, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Ireland and France. In June 1994, he is criticised for appearing on the satirical Have I Got News. But the outings continue.

THE FATWA'S VICTIMS

Apparently unable to strike at Rushdie himself, his publishers and translators become a target instead. In July 1991, his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi (right) is stabbed to death and the Italian translator, attacked by a hit squad demanding Rushdie's address. Two years later, in Oslo, Rushdie's Norwegian publisher, is shot and severely wounded.

CAMPAIGN FOR FREE SPEECH

The International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie with branches around the world is spearheaded in Britain by free speech campaigner Frances D'Souza. Ms D'Souza meets Iranian diplomats in London in 1992 and the committee lobby the Foreign Office regularly. Other campaigners include writers Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison (above) .

FREEDOM AT LAST

The first sign of progress is in February when Rushdie meets Robin Cook and is allowed to give his first press conference in the ornate surroundings of the Foreign Office. Months of delicate talks follow. "It looks like it's all over," Rushdie says on Thursday. Yesterday he faces the world, free at last.

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