The British government Tuesday rejected an Iranian ultimatum to change Britain’s stand over author Salman Rushdie, threatened with death by Iran, but it welcomed a Soviet offer to try and mediate the continuing controversy over Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
The developments followed a vote by the Iranian Parliament earlier Tuesday to break all diplomatic relations with Britain within a week unless London denounces “unprincipled stands against the world of Islam” and condemns the contents of Rushdie’s book.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons she would not be swayed by Iran’s threat.
“Freedom of speech and expression is subject only to the laws of this land, in particular libel and blasphemy, and will remain subject to the rule of law. It is absolutely fundamental to everything in which we believe and cannot be interfered with by any outside force,” she said.
In Moscow, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov told journalists that “the situation around ‘The Satanic Verses’ causes grave concern for the Soviet leadership.”
Gerasimov said that Iranian officials had given the impression during meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in Tehran last weekend “that we could play some positive role in resolving” the conflict. He said that Shevardnadze will immediately take up the issue with Western leaders because of the “unforeseeable consequences” of the affair.
Reacting to the Soviet hint, a British Foreign Office spokesman told The Times: “That’s the sort of thing we’re going to be positive about.”
The British spokesman said that it is up to Iran to decide whether it wants normal relations with London. If it does, he said, Tehran “must renounce the use or threat of violence against citizens of other countries. . . . We would like to have normal relations with Iran, but so far they’re making that impossible. If the Soviets can help to redress the balance, we’d be pleased.”
Last month, Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned Rushdie and his publishers to death for producing a book that allegedly blasphemes Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
In response, Britain last week withdrew its three-person diplomatic team from its embassy in Tehran and ordered Iran’s charge d’affaires to leave London. The Iranian official left London on Tuesday night.
Other members of the 12-nation European Community, as well as Canada and Sweden, have ordered their diplomats home from Tehran to protest the death threat against Rushdie. The United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations.
Last week, Iranian leaders held out the possibility that Rushdie might be pardoned if he apologized, and that move was widely interpreted as a desire by Iran’s so-called pragmatic leadership faction to defuse the crisis.
The next day, Rushdie apologized for the distress he had caused Muslims, but Khomeini replied that Rushdie would never be pardoned and said he was doomed to hell.
The official Iranian press agency IRNA said Tuesday that “nearly all” of the 201 members of the Majlis, or Parliament, voted for the break with Britain and that the step was then approved by the Council of Guardians, the 12-person body that must sanction legislation as being correct under Islamic law.
Britain apparently was singled out by Iran because the book was first published in Britain, and Thatcher’s government has reacted with outrage to Khomeini’s order that Rushdie be killed.
Tehran Radio said that Tuesday’s vote should be taken as a warning to other countries that have recalled their diplomats.
“The Islamic Republic has demonstrated that it does not want relations at any price,” the broadcast said. “The Iranian Parliament’s reaction to anti-Islamic activities is a warning to governments that are in any way involved in the struggle against Islam and Muslims.”
In Moscow, Gerasimov said Foreign Minister Shevardnadze had raised the issue of the Rushdie book and discussed it at length with Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian foreign minister, and then with Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, during his visit to Tehran at the end of a five-nation tour of the Middle East.
“The Soviet side had the impression that the Iranian government is sincerely interested in settling the situation that has emerged and believes that the Soviet Union could play a positive role,” the Soviet spokesman said.
But Gerasimov indicated that Shevardnadze had not discussed the matter with Khomeini during their separate meeting. Khomeini has overruled previous efforts by Iranian government leaders to reach a compromise.
“It would be premature to go into detail on this touchy and delicate subject,” Gerasimov said, implying that Shevardnadze has specific ideas for a resolution of the controversy as a result of his talks in Tehran.
Shevardnadze will take up the issue first with Francisco Fernandez Ordonez, the Spanish foreign minister and current president of the European Community’s Council of Ministers, who arrives in Moscow today.
Shevardnadze will also pursue the matter with other Western foreign ministers in Vienna next week at the opening of new talks on the reduction of conventional armed forces in Europe. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James A. Baker III are scheduled to meet in Vienna on March 7.
The Rushdie affair is particularly sensitive in Britain not only because the Bombay-born author is a British citizen but because it could affect the fate of British citizens held captive either in Iran or by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon. Relatives of those hostages saw in Tuesday’s vote in Tehran an opportunity to prevent a total collapse of ties that could endanger their loved ones, and they urged the government to take a more positive stance.
“I think our government has made it clear that they don’t want to see a breakdown of relations,” said Paul Cooper, whose businessman brother, Roger, is being held in Tehran on spying charges.
“It wouldn’t do any harm to say that they regret publication of a book which has caused enormous offense all the way around the world to Muslim sensibilities,” Cooper added in a British television interview. “They should also make it clear (something) which may be obvious to you and me, but it isn’t to the Iranians--that they have no part in the production or the writing of this book and they don’t share its views.”
The brother of Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, also being held hostage by pro-Iranian factions in Beirut, called on both countries to use the one-week reprieve to try to resolve the situation.
And in Washington, U.S. officials expressed deep concern about the impact of Iran’s decision on nine American and three British hostages believed held by pro-Iranian extremists in Lebanon. One U.S. counterterrorism official said it “means that it will be much more difficult now to win their freedom.”
“There is no question that we accepted Iran as the main channel to get action on the hostages,” the official added. “So this development means that we can’t expect the immediate release of anybody.”
Fisher reported from London and Wallace from Nicosia, Cyprus. Times staff writers Michael Parks, in Moscow, and Robin Wright, in Washington, also contributed to this story.