Last September, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, held a private meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Velayati, as part of Britain's deliberately low-profile policy to seek a possible solution to the fatwa problem. Mr Velayati gave Mr Hurd a quiet piece of advice: 'Try to get Rushdie not to show himself in public. It's the only way we can find a way forward. Anything else will just inflame things.'
That meeting was part of the twin-track policy which diplomats say Britain had pursued for much of the four years the religious edict has been in force. As one official described it: 'One, to allow the fatwa to wither on the vine without making public remonstrations with Tehran - which was also helpful in the context of securing the freedom of the Beirut hostages. Two, to take the opportunity to raise with as senior an Iranian as we could find ways out of it, without going upfront.'
Mr Hurd did so with Mr Velayati at the two past UN General Assembly sessions, in September 1991 and 1992. 'We did it very thoroughly last time, but Velayati couldn't offer anything remotely adequate to achieve what they wanted, which was the upgrading to full diplomatic relations,' one official said.
Meanwhile, Mr Rushdie was doing anything but refusing to show himself in public. 'He came to us and said, 'I've decided to up the ante',' said one diplomat. Above all, Mr Rushdie heightened his contacts with other Western governments. He travelled abroad, establishing ties with the governments of Canada and Scandinavian countries. In October, he went to Bonn and was received at the Foreign Ministry. It was this trip to Germany - Iran's main European trading partner - which prompted the June Fifth Foundation to increase the bounty promised to anyone who carried out the fatwa from the existing dollars 2m (pounds 1.4m) to an unspecified amount. Britain termed the new bounty a 'monstrosity'. One senior British official said: 'It became clear the fatwa was not going to wither on the vine.'
Mr Rushdie then approached the Foreign Office to point out that if the Germans and other Europeans were openly confronting the Iranians about his case, his own government could not very well refuse to do so. 'We decided it was right to join in the party,' one official said.
The Iranians were given a last chance to seek to head off a confrontation. The Iranian charge d'affaires, still desperate to salvage any hope of upgrading relations, held talks with Mr Hurd to seek to offer a solution. It was not enough: his offer was a pledge that the Iranian government would not encourage interference in Britain's internal affairs - that is, would not actively encourage anyone to carry out the fatwa on British soil. The offer was neither sufficient in itself, nor did it hold the Iranian government accountable. It certainly would not have been enough to stop the momentum Mr Rushdie had managed to build up in other countries.
Thus on 4 February, Mr Rushdie was seen arriving - in public - for a meeting with a Foreign Office Minister, Douglas Hogg. John Major has since said he is willing to meet the author, who has declared he intends to come out of hiding altogether. One Iranian diplomat commented: 'It's horrible. In January, we were having quiet discussions with senior British officials. We were trying to solve the problem.'
Iranian sources said it was because Mr Rushdie went to Sweden to accept an award that Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, reiterated the fatwa on the fourth anniversary of its imposition by saying 'it must and will be implemented'. Britain is locked in a war of words with Iran, and a normal isation of relations appears as remote as ever. British diplomats hope the internationalisation of the issue will do some good: that countries on which Iran is economically dependent will help persuade the Iranians that a policy largely designed to detract from discontent at home does not come cheap. Whatever the long-term effects, sources close to Tehran predict that first there will be a further radicalisation in Tehran.