Iran gives ground over Rushdie

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Confused by rhetoric in Tehran and reticence in their face-to- face discussions, the European Union and Iran yesterday appeared to move a little closer to agreement on a formula to protect Salman Rushdie from the death sentence imposed on him.

Meeting in Paris, Iranian and European officials failed to reach a public accord on Mr Rushdie's safety. There were signs that the Iranian government is still willing to consider an understanding that it will take no measures to carry out the death sentence, although it is unable to rescind it. But foreign ministry officials in Tehran said no written commitment was offered yesterday as a protest against a recent statement from the Group of Seven industrialised countries which called on Iran to safeguard Mr Rushdie and renounce terrorism.

The G7 and Russia also urged that no country should help Iran to acquire any nuclear technology that might help it to make a nuclear weapon,

The Rushdie issue is becoming a test of the EU's "critical dialogue" with the clerical regime in Tehran, a policy which seeks to build a constructive relationship with Iran, to foster commercial dealings and to mitigate the radical and revolutionary tendencies within the Iranian ruling class.

Mr Rushdie was sentenced to death for blasphemy under a fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini after publication of the author's book The Satanic Verses.

At yesterday's meeting, Mahmoud Vaezi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, told the Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry, Bertrand Dufourcq, that Iran had to stand by the formal validity of the fatwa.

Although Ayatollah Khomeini is dead his edict cannot be revoked for theological reasons. But the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has said: "Iran is not going to send anybody, any commandos, to kill anybody in Europe."

The EU, for its part, seeks a formal and binding commitment from the Iranian government to that effect. But the Iranian establishment, which is hostage to a powerful, radically anti- Western faction, seems unable to take that step.

A chorus of zealous condemnation from extremists in Tehran has greeted every sign that the government might be moving towards a compromise.

The latest blast came in the newspaper Jomhuri Islami, which is controlled by the brother of Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.