Rushdie wins firm backing from Major: Secret talks could worsen relations between Britain and Iran

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RELATIONS between Britain and Iran looked set to deteriorate last night after the Prime Minister stated his 'unequivocal support' for Salman Rushdie during a secret 40- minute meeting at Westminster.

Indicating that the likely diplomatic effect of the meeting had been discussed, Mr Rushdie said relations between the two countries were 'frosty and could get frostier at any second'.

On what Mr Rushdie described as the most important day of his campaign to have the fatwa - the religious edict calling for his death - which was imposed four years ago, lifted, he said the political will to tackle the issue had finally been established in Britain. 'Now we have to get that political will in Iran.'

The meeting between John Major, Mr Rushdie and Frances D'Souza, director of Article 19, the human rights organisation campaigning on the author's behalf, took place amid heightened security, in Mr Major's office in the House of Commons.

Perhaps significantly, no photographs of the meeting - the first between the two men - were taken. Mr Rushdie said he was more concerned with 'substance than image'. But there was speculation last night that the Prime Minister may have been warned of the damage such images could do in Iran.

At a press conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London after the meeting, Mr Rushdie, 45, said Mr Major's support was unequivocal. 'The British Prime Minister's welcoming of us will send a message around the world, both to our allies and to the government of Iran. I think it was intended to do that and I am sure it will . . . I was very encouraged by it,' he said.

'The PM reiterated . . . that what Iran has done is totally unacceptable, it is an outrage and that it is very important to make every effort possible to have it (the fatwa) reversed.

'It is certainly my view . . . and the Government's view that the conventional wisdom that nothing can be done about this is simply not the case. Plenty can be done about it.'

Mr Rushdie said he had no complaints about the Government's handling of his case and he thanked Mr Major for providing Special Branch protection. He understood that priority had to be given to the British hostages in Beirut; once they had been released, there was a clear increase in government pressure on Iran.

Peter Temple-Morris, chairman of the all-party Britain-Iran Parliamentary Group, was among a number of MPs who criticised the meeting last night. 'I think whoever is advising the Prime Minister needs their heads reading,' he said, adding that the fatwa could never be rescinded and Mr Rushdie would be safest keeping a low profile.

Iqbal Sacranie, joint convener of the United Kingdom action committee on Islamic affairs, said: 'It shows the level of insensitivity of the Prime Minister to the feelings of the British Muslim community.'

Mr Sacranie said the meeting would not only anger British Muslims, but would bring condemnation from Muslim nations throughout the world, and he added that it could cost the Conservative Party votes.

'The mood of the Muslim community in this country when they hear of this meeting will be one of extreme anger. We have 2 million citizens in this country who have no legal remedy against Rushdie's gratuitous abuse and yet the Prime Minister seems to be concerned with the rights of one individual,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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