Iranian envoys deride plan for Major to meet Rushdie

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The Independent Online
IRANIAN diplomats in London last night scoffed at an announcement by Downing Street that John Major had agreed to meet Salman Rushdie following the author's public appeal for the support of the Prime Minister in lifting the death threats against him.

The meeting, which has yet to be arranged, will mark a heightening of British diplomatic efforts to persuade religious leaders in Iran to drop the fatwa against Mr Rushdie.

But the Iranian diplomats criticised the Government for raising the profile of the fatwa issue. 'It is not very helpful from the part of the British government,' one said.

They noted there had been a consistent lifting of the level of contacts since Mr Rushdie was invited to the Foreign Office to see Douglas Hogg, the Minister of State, last week. 'First Hogg, now Major,' one Iranian official said. 'Who next, the Queen?'

Iranian sources said that far from prompting a lifting of the fatwa, the increased government pressure will serve to radicalise the determination in Tehran.

The Prime Minister's agreement to the meeting delighted the International Rushdie Defence Committee, which will ask Mr Major to head an international campaign at government level to persuade the Iranian government to cancel both the fatwa on the author's life and the bounty money on Mr Rushdie.

'We fully understand the offence caused to devout Muslims around the world by Mr Rushdie's book. But Iran does no service to that great tradition by its failure to repudiate this incitement to murder,' Frances D'Souza, chairman of the comittee and director of Article 19, the civil rights campaign, said.

The campaigners believe the Foreign Office, which previously gave a low profile to its support for Mr Rushdie, changed its stance because it realised its quiet diplomacy had failed and because of the committee's success in seeking international pressure by other countries, including Germany, Denmark and Ireland.

'The quiet diplomacy has not worked. The Foreign Office was hoping that the landslide victory for a moderate leader in Iran last year would lead to more moderation, but that has not happened. The government in Tehran has become increasingly hardline,' a Rushdie supporter said.

The Prime Minister's decision to meet Mr Rushdie was welcomed last night by John Smith, the Labour leader. 'In spite of the offence which his book has caused, the fatwa was totally unacceptable,' a Labour source said.

Following a change in the Foreign Office analysis, ministers now believe the Prime Minister's overt support will help to persuade the Iranians to drop the fatwa. It is likely the meeting will be soon after Mr Major returns from the United States.

Mr Rushdie said on the Breakfast with Frost programme on Sunday that an on-the-record meeting with Mr Major would be an important, symbolic gesture. 'Nothing will set the seal on this new policy better than a meeting with Major,' he said.

'The other thing is to show this coalition that's beginning to be built up in Europe and North America, again that Britain is taking a lead in this matter. So it's to send a message to the home team as well as to the Iranians.'