Rushdie's Future: `People are very tired of the rule of the Imam'

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The Independent Online
Salman Rushdie was sceptical yesterday about suggestions that the official Iranian position has softened, as Steve Crawshaw found.

"My own attitude is: wait and see," Rushdie told The Independent. "People seem very eager to believe that change is taking place - on very scant evidence. I've become quite sceptical of gentler announcements. They're often followed by contradictions."

He was scathing, too, about the passing-the-buck argument - presented yet again by Seyyed Mohajerani, minister of Islamic guidance - which suggests that a fatwa cannot be overturned because Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued the fatwa, is no longer alive. "It's disingenuous. In every other aspect of the Islamic republic, they talk about the unity of religion and politics ... The Iranians can always do things when they want to. We can get bogged down in areas of theological discussion. If the Iranian state decides to get rid of this problem, it's able to do so."

He was cautiously optimistic about the election of the new Iranian leader, President Khatami. "What it says to me is that people are getting very tired of the rule of the Imam. This was the greatest protest vote they could make ...

"If the people of Iran were able to make their political will felt, you'd get a very different society."

But he seemed resigned to the fact that little has changed, so far. The return of the EU ambassadors to Tehran was itself an indication that the status quo remains in force. "At the time when the EU withdrew its ambassadors, it said they would only come back if the fatwa was withdrawn. But they have sent them back anyway."

Rushdie, still under threat of assassination because his Satanic Verses offended the Iranian government, spoke of his disappointment that Britain, which takes over the presidency of the European Union in 11 days' time, has failed to offer the moral support that he had hoped for.

"Before Blair was prime minister, he was extremely supportive. He said: `Any time I can do anything for you, don't hesitate to ask'."

Come the election, however, Labour's warmth for the threatened author diminished. When Rushdie requested a meeting with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, he was told there was "no need for such a meeting at this moment".

To which Rushdie observed: "I can't think when there would be a better moment."

Rushdie insists that a tough stance by the European Union - where Britain will be the effective leader, for the next six months - is the only way of forcing Iran to soften its current position.

The Labour government preaches the need for an ethical foreign policy, which presumably includes the need not to kill people, according to what books they have written. Rushdie believes that the Government is not hostile to his position. Equally, however, there is no sign of a tough new stance. "I keep asking for a policy - and there is no policy."