Rushdie peace deal closer

Secret documents disclosed: Europe gropes towards diplomatic formula to win an Iranian promise not to send assassins
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The Independent Online
Iran and the European Union have edged the closest yet to resolving their battle of wills over Salman Rushdie, according to texts of EU documents obtained by the Independent.

They show that Iran reopened contacts with Europe in September, following the collapse this summer of an initiative to get a written guarantee from the Iranian government that it would not send agents to kill the novelist.

The latest talks have led to agreement on a possible exchange of letters between the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, and Javier Solana, Spain's Foreign Minister, who is currently President of the EU Council of Ministers. An internal European report from October implied that after that, apart from a general concern for Mr Rushdie's human rights, Brussels would consider the matter closed.

But diplomats close to the talks are dubious about Tehran's sincerity or its ability to prevent a Muslim radical from trying to kill Mr Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.

With elections due soon in Iran, diplomats also believe that Iranian officials are unlikely to sign any document that could attract the wrath of radicals who defend the death sentence on Mr Rushdie for apostasy.

"These negotiations are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They will end in disarray," said one European source. "This activity is all about Iran's nervousness about new American sanctions and the continuous desire by some EU members to enter the commercial vacuum left by the US."

Since initiating a "critical dialogue" with Iran in 1993, European states have generally maintained a common front. The EU, the October report said, "had staked its credibility on this issue and needed an outcome. The EU should continue to insist on a written Iranian response, but show some flexibility on form. An exchange of letters would be appropriate."

Europe was also prepared to dilute its message with what the assessment called verbal "camouflage". A draft of Mr Solana's letter circulated last week only gets to the point after general praise of better relations with Iran and hopes for a "more constructive" Iranian attitude to Arab-Israeli peace and for peace in Bosnia.

"[Thirdly, we have] taken note with interest," the draft missive to Mr Velayati continued, "[of statements] according to which the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran would not send any commando to threaten Salman Rushdie's life."

In his draft reply, Mr Velayati felt no need to come to the point until after some 50 lines of self-justification on a wide range of issues.

"At this point, I want to refer to one of the examples of contention between the Islamic world and the West, the blasphemous book Satanic Verses and its writer. The fatwa ... is a valid and irrevocable religious injunction.

"The government of Iran, however ... has not sent and will not send anybody to kill the apostate writer of Satanic Verses." But the draft went on to refer to Iran's feeling of "astonishment at the manner European governments handle blasphemers ... and biased coverage of this issue by the Western media. Governments have a special responsibility to prevent... actions that may encourage blasphemy. I am pleased to note this important point was attended to by the member states of the European Union and in your letter."

The European draft, however, made no such promise. The closest it got was the idea that "European societies are based upon pluralism, which calls for tolerance towards all creeds."

An EU circular asked European governments to reconsider this point. The response showed - as the Iranian side probably knew - that it would be unconstitutional in France to take action against "blasphemy." Other European states had problems with the idea as well.

Whatever the outcome of the "exchange of letters," a new round of brinkmanship starts in December when a new European rapporteur may be allowed to fly to Tehran to start work.