Velayati offers no word of hope for Rushdie

Iranian Foreign Minister ducks question of whether Iran supports - unofficially - fatwa on writer

Tehran - Dr Ali Akbar Velayati knows the questions by heart - and most of the answers. Nuclear weapons, "terrorism" and - he nods wearily when the name is mentioned - Salman Rushdie. He is one of the few Iranian officials who does not regard journalists' questions as provocation, just issues which must be gone through, again and again, with little hope of resolution. "We as a government are not going to send anybody to kill Salman Rushdie ..." he said. "But if you are asking about the fatwa, that is something else."

You can see why the British regard such replies as insufficient and, listening to Dr Velayati's almost impeccable English, why they are as far as he is prepared to go. It will, according to the Iranian Foreign Minister, be another two weeks before his department responds to the European Union's demarche on Mr Rushie, demanding an end to the death threats. Ask Dr Velayati how on earth Iran and Britain are going to solve Salman Rushdie's predicament and he sighs, very audibly, into my tape-recorder.

"I remember when I was talking to Mr Douglas Hurd two years ago and he asked me about this issue repeatedly and we talked a lot about this question. So once again, I will express our official position: our President [Hashemi Rafsanjani] has said several times ... that we as a government are not going to send anybody to kill Salman Rushdie or others. This is the official position of our government. If you are asking about the fatwa, that is something else ... So we have to divide this issue into two sections: first, the question of the fatwa, second, the position of the government. If you ask if the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is going to send some people or to dispatch some commandos to kill somebody outside this country, whether this is Salman Rushdie or someone else, our official position is no."

The word "official" is the catch, of course. If Iran is not going "officially" to try to kill Mr Rushdie, what does the fatwa represent? What if an Iranian leader who is not in the government wants to kill Mr Rushdie? Can the government restrain him? "We are expressing our views as the people who are working in the government. So when we say we are not going to dispatch commandos to kill someone, it doesn't mean that this rejection only applies to direct action." So what about the 14 Kordad foundation, which issued a bounty for Salman Rushdie's death?

"People are free to say whatever they wish," Dr Velayati replied. "This is based on free expression. You have the same situation in Britain. When people are talking in Hyde Park, for example, when you go there, everyone is talking about everything." But, I said, if someone in Hyde Park says he wants to kill someone and offers a reward for his assassination, he will get arrested for incitement to murder. Here, to put it mildly, was a ducking of the question by Dr Velayati. "In Iran," he said, " people are really free to express their views and criticisms - they even criticise our government, like in many other countries, in parliament, in the newspapers, in the streets. You are here. You have been here many times. You know the reality."

So we came to the tricky issue of the fatwa; and here is what Dr Velayati said: "Imam Khomeini reiterated [in his fatwa against Salman Rushdie] the principle of Islamic law, and after a few months, it was adopted in the Organisation of Islamic Council meeting which was held in Saudi Arabia; I'm sure you consider Saudi Arabia as a conservative regime. All Muslim countries voted for this verdict or fatwa, including Saudi Arabia, and the last time they did this was at a summit in Morocco when the fatwa was confirmed by 52 Muslim countries. This is a reality, an issue that is important for all Muslims all over the world, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiites - even those Muslims who are living in Britain have said the same. Even before the issuing of this fatwa by Imam Khomeini, there were some demonstrations by Muslims in India and Pakistan - and people were killed in these demonstrations because of Mr Rushdie's book."

Did Dr Velayati sense that there was something unsatisfactory in all this? Can international relations, a subject upon which he has written a book, really be conducted in such circumstances? It was as far as he would go. So we turned to the question of terrorism, America's principal accusation against Iran, along with its alleged desire to possess nuclear weapons.

"If there is any country which wants to be independent, it will be accused of being terrorist," he said. "This is a heritage from the Cold War. At that time, the communist bloc used to accuse the other side of imperialism. The other side used to accuse the communists of terrorism. Now after the collapse of communism, they say Iran ... that we are not a democracy, that we terrorise others ... Why don't you ask them to prove that Iran is behind this terrorist action in Europe or that bombing in Latin America?" After the Oklahoma bomb, Dr Velayati said, some Americans and Israelis blamed Iran but "shamefully" failed to apologise when it was proved this was untrue.

"Another example, when Mr [Shahpour] Bakhtiar [the Shah's last prime minister] was assassinated in France, many people said Iran was behind this, and after a while the French justice department announced that the government of Iran was not behind this assassination. If somebody claims that Iran is behind any terrorist action, they should prove it."

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