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Iran clings to its old violent ways: Few doubt Tehran is behind several attacks on Rushdie's publishers, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

THE ARABS have a long literature warning of the deviousness of their Persian neighbours. 'They are a people of cunning and deceit' is as common as the Virgilian admonition to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

So when Iranian diplomats launched one of their periodic charm offensives a few weeks ago warning bells were immediately set off. The diplomats who approached the Independent had one issue to discuss: the case of Salman Rushdie, whose publisher in Norway was shot and wounded yesterday. Moderates and pragmatists on all sides agree that for political and technical reasons the fatwa against Rushdie cannot be rescinded. But for all practical purposes it can be considered to have lapsed.

More radical elements in the Iranian establishment, from the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, downwards, have reiterated their calls for the persecution of Rushdie.

Government circles, however, have been at pains to distance themselves from what they present as an issue that does not have government backing. Such protestations must be treated with caution. Tehran insists that the bonyad or religious institution which placed the dollars 2m (pounds 1.3m) bounty on Rushdie's head is independent. Yet its directors are all appointed by the government.

Few doubt that the fingers of Tehran's very long hands have been meddling in a succession of attacks on publishers and translators of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, from Tokyo to Milan to Ankara. Iran has also been behind assassinations of Iranian dissidents outside Iran.

And throughout the Arab world, Iran's hand is seen behind attempts by Islamic groups to destabilise the existing order. Egypt has accused Iran of stirring up Islamic extremists bent on toppling the government - an accusation for which it has furnished no evidence. And Iran continues to sponsor Palestinian and Lebanese groups opposed to accommodation with Israel.

Gulf strategists have expressed concern at Iran's rearmament programme, though it has not replaced the hardware destroyed in its war with Iraq. Greater foreboding stems from attempts, so far unsuccessful, by Iran to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

So if Iranian diplomats are actively promoting the idea that their country is quietly trying to forget about Rushdie, why should an attack be mounted at this time on his Norwegian publisher when the trail will, rightly or wrongly, lead to Tehran? What is the evidence of the reorientation of foreign policy by a more pragmatic President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani?

Iran's foreign policy, for all the rhetoric of its leaders, is not directed at any enemy, whether the 'Great Satan' in Washington, the old enemy Iraq or the 'decadent' kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy is centred on Opec, on maintaining as high a price for Iranian oil as possible. For Iran needs every cent. It has a rapidly rising population, which has to be fed, housed and given jobs. The economy has been liberalised over the past couple of years, yet investment in productive industry remains limited, and the country relies heavily on imports.

By the same token, Western countries are keen to exploit opportunities in the lucrative Iranian market. For that reason, the major Western countries are prepared to forgive Iran its misdemeanours. So Iran will continue to conduct foreign policy in often violent ways with relative impunity.