Rushdie's Future: `Passions rise as Iran seeks new talks on death sentence

With the return of European Union ambassadors to Tehran, the Iranian government hopes to re-start negotiations over the fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie. But as Our Correspondent in Tehran hears from the new Iranian minister of Islamic Guidance, Seyyed Ataollah Mohajerani, the Rushdie affair has no simple solutions.

Everyone in Tehran understands the equation. And both the Iranians and the European Union ambassadors are very polite at their talks about Salman Rushdie - because both appreciate the problems of the other. Western diplomats in Tehran want a letter from the Iranians which effectively overturns the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against the author. The Iranians are prepared to put their names to a letter which says that they are not going to kill Rushdie - but they will not officially overturn a religious edict. To do so could topple the new government of President Mohammad Khatami. Not to do so, in the eyes of the EU, is a re-affirmation of the death sentence. One day, Rushdie should write a novel about it.

"It was announced officially that Iran will not execute anyone regarding this fatwa," Seyyed Ataollah Mohajerani told me in his new Islamic Guidance ministry. "But a fatwa from a religious authority is not something to be cancelled by a government - and the government of Iran cannot ignore it or cancel it ... the book [The Satanic Verses] is there and the people of the world have read it. Rushdie is still alive but Imam Khomeini has passed away - so it's not possible to cancel the fatwa."

Mr Mohajerani, it should be said at once, is no conservative. One of the most liberal figures in the new Khatami government, he is a former vice- president for legal and parliamentary affairs, with a PhD in history and a belief in civil freedoms that almost cost him parliament's approval for his new job. Indeed, his 48-minute speech to the Iranian majlis this summer - strangely ignored in the West - contained some memorable passages on freedom of speech.

During his appearance, he was taunted for being "linked to liberals" and for proposing a dialogue with the United States - something which President Khatami finally did last weekend. At one point, a majlis deputy demanded to know if Mr Mohajerani would personally kill Salman Rushdie if he came face-to-face with him. The future minister would not clarify his views on the matter. During the same hearing, however, he stated baldly that "everybody who has accepted the Islamic Republic and our country's constitution ... must be subject to tolerance ... I condemn the burning of bookshops, the beating of university lecturers and attacks on magazine offices."

In his conversation with me, Mr Mohajerani insisted that the fatwa was a religious decree. "Some religious leaders believe that if someone has humiliated the Prophet, if he repents, he could be forgiven - this is a religious point of view," he said. Was this some kind of message for the religious leadership? Would it not have been better for Iran, I asked, if the fatwa had never been issued? There was a sharp smile from Mr Mohajerani. "If the book had not been written, there would have been no fatwa issued," he said. "The negotiations with the European Union [over the fatwa against Rushdie] were stopped when the EU ambassadors left [after a German court had blamed Iran's religious leadership for planning the murder of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin]. Now we hope we can restart negotiations."

The Khatami government, of course, is well aware that the 15 Khordad Foundation, which on 12 February this year announced an increase in the reward money for Rushdie's murder - to pounds 1.5m - is an immensely powerful organisation with the support of the unelected Spiritual Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. The foundation's head, Ayatollah Shaikh Hassan Sanei, is a senior figure in the religious establishment and the personal representative of Khamanei. In an interview with the Jumhuri-ye Islami newspaper, Ayatollah Sanei announced that anyone - non-Muslim or even a bodyguard of Rushdie's - could claim the reward for killing the "apostate".

A day after the increase in the reward for Rushdie's killing, a Revolutionary Guard statement published in the same newspaper claimed that "Muslims of the world have always considered Salman Rushdie an apostate and shall not rest until Imam Khomeini's order has been implemented." The then President, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, tried to diminish the impact of these statements by talking about the 15 Khordad as "a non-governmental organisation" whose decisions "have nothing to do with the government's policies". Mr Rafsanjani even evinced ignorance of the Khordad's rationale. "I don't know what their motive was," he said, "but the government's policy towards [the Rushdie affair] is the same as before, and one which we have repeatedly announced." A request by The Independent to interview Ayatollah Sanei, was politely declined by the 15 Khordad organisation.

The truth is that the Rushdie affair is in danger of reigniting passions among the ultra-orthodox clergy who were defeated in last May's presidential elections. When President Khatami's supporters demand intellectual freedom, his political enemies now suggest that they wish to excuse The Satanic Verses and contradict the word of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who advocates intellectual freedom may now be linked to Rushdie. And, of course, the more Khatami's men condemn Rushdie's book, the less liberal they appear in the West.

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