But after a series of conflicting statements by the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, it appeared that the novelist's apology would not satisfy Iran's spiritual guide and supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Five days ago, Khomeini called on Muslims worldwide to track Rushdie and his publishers down and "kill them so that no one ever again would dare to insult the sanctities of Muslims."
Hours later, a second IRNA dispatch, from Tehran, declared: "The statement, though far too short of a repentance, is generally seen as sufficient . . . to warrant his pardon by the masses in Iran and elsewhere in the world."
But an hour after that, IRNA retracted the second dispatch, saying its content was a "personal observation" by one of its writers and "does not allow for any specific interpretation whatsoever." That apparently left Rushdie, under armed police guard in Britain, still under threat of Khomeini's call for his death.
Rushdie's three-sentence statement Saturday, made public by his London agent, followed hints Friday by Iranian President Ali Khamenei that repentence could result in lifting the death threat that last week drove the Indian-born novelist and his American wife into hiding.
"As author of 'The Satanic Verses,' I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel," Rushdie said through his agent.
"I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam," he added. "Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."
The contradictory series of reactions from the official Iranian news agency began with the declaration that Rushdie, while formally apologizing, had "made no indication of repentance or that his slanderous book would be withdrawn" from sale. Then the revised reaction seemed to suggest that Iranian authorities were trying to distance themselves from an international furor that threatened to harm Iran's drive to improve ties with the West.
Then a third version, effectively reverting to the first position, was seen by analysts as possibly reflecting internal discord on the issue among Iran's leaders.
Government officials here were waiting for a more authoritative response from Iran to Rushdie's statement. A spokesman said the Foreign Office learned of the apology after it had been made public and added, "If it serves to calm passions, then that can only be a good thing."
Britain Freezes Relations
Britain has frozen relations with Iran in the wake of Khomeini's death threat against one of its citizens but has stopped short of more dramatic gestures of diplomatic protest that have been made by some of its West European neighbors.
France said Saturday that its ambassador to Iran, originally scheduled to return to Tehran today, would delay his departure from Paris. Earlier, West Germany had recalled its ambassador "for consultations," and the Netherlands' foreign minister canceled a planned visit to Iran.
British officials have been working to improve relations with Tehran, partly in hopes of helping gain freedom for a British citizen imprisoned in Iran as a spy and for three other Britons held hostage by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
London reopened its embassy in Tehran late last year and was in the process of staff building, and an ambassador was slated to return there in May. It was that buildup that was frozen after Khomeini's death threat and the subsequent offer by Iranian religious and business leaders of about $6 million in bounty for Rushdie.
British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said he hopes for a strong, united front against the Iranian threats to emerge from a scheduled meeting in Brussels on Monday of the European Community's foreign ministers.
Muslim leaders in the United States applauded Rushdie's apology, although some described it as only a "first step."
"That's very good. We were looking forward to that," said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "I hope the publisher will do the same thing and withdraw the book. . . . Freedom of speech is fine, but the speech must be responsible."
Comparing "The Satanic Verses" to the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," Dr. Maher Hathout, a physician who is spokesman for the Los Angeles Islamic Center, said that "the code of ethics" that discourages hate literature against other religious and ethnic groups "should be observed for Muslims as well."
In Chicago, Amer Haleen, editor of Islamic Horizons magazine, said, "The next step would be for Rushdie to put his talents to use in a way that would induce understanding and togetherness, rather than hate."
Meanwhile, in New York, M. T. Mehdi, secretary general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, said that Rushdie's apology "might reduce the bitterness of the Muslim world, except for his insistence that he was not insulting Islam and that he has been misunderstood."
In contrast to Muslim leaders who want the book withdrawn, Mehdi urged Americans to read "The Satanic Verses," saying they will find it "dull, tedious and unreadable."
Born to a wealthy Muslim family in Bombay, the 41-year-old Rushdie came to Britain as schoolboy at age 14. He is now a British citizen and has described himself as a lapsed Muslim.
His complex, allegorical novel about immigration and religion was termed by one British reviewer as "a sort of 'Last Temptation of Mohammed,' " in the spirit of the controversial Greek book and American film, "The Last Temptation of Christ."
Muslim critics contend that it blasphemes Islam, the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran, Islam's holy book.
The release of Rushdie's apology reportedly followed a lengthy meeting between the author and his publishers, Viking Penguin. A few days ago, Rushdie was defiant about the angry protests against him. "Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book," he said in a television interview just before he went into hiding. " . . . It seems to me Islamic fundamentalists could do with a little criticism right now."
The furor continued to escalate, however, and by week's end, distribution of the book was sharply curtailed in much of Europe and North America.
The two biggest U.S. bookstore chains ordered "The Satanic Verses" off of their display shelves, and Canada temporarily halted shipments of the book at the border, pending resolution of a complaint that it violates a legal ban on hate literature.
Banned in Some Countries
The book has been officially barred in a number of countries with large Muslim populations, including Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and South Africa. Publishers in France, West Germany, Greece and Turkey have decided against bringing it out.
Rushdie's apology was welcomed by some Muslim moderates in Britain.
"We very much welcome Mr. Rushdie's apology and hope that it will now pave the way out of this unfortunate crisis," the Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance said in a statement.
"If Salman Rushdie has apologized, we hope God will forgive him," said Mac Choudhury, a spokesman for the Muslim Bangladeshi community of Manchester, in the north of Britain. "Rushdie has done a great deal of harm. But we also hope that people will forgive him as well."
Others here were appalled at the way the whole affair was handled. "It seems very sad to me that Mr. Rushdie, as a British citizen, has had to make such an apology, which implies either the withdrawal of all the copies of that book throughout the world or an expunging of any comments which are not acceptable to Khomeini," said Martin Flannery, a Labor Party member of Parliament.
Flannery told Britain's Press Assn. news service that "this puts British people in a position in which they should not be put, and it is to be hoped that our government makes it absolutely clear that threats of murder are totally unacceptable to our government and to our people."
Times staff writer Terry Pristin, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.
The following is the text of author Salman Rushdie's statement issued Saturday in London:
'As author of "The Satanic Verses," I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel.
I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.
Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.'