Iran’s President Signals End of Death Threat for Rushdie


Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Tuesday that his country’s decade-long vendetta against Salman Rushdie, the author of “The Satanic Verses,” is “completely finished.”

Khatami, speaking to a small group of reporters while attending the U.N. General Assembly here, also outlined his desire to forge stronger relations with the United States as Iran nears the 20th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution.

“We need to create a pathway in the world of mistrust between the two countries,” he said. “If we can remove misunderstandings between people, we can remove misunderstandings between nations.” Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is expected to give a speech in New York next week offering a more specific road map.


A breakthrough on the long-standing controversy over Rushdie would symbolize a major thaw between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Rushdie, an Indian-born Muslim, set off a firestorm in the Islamic world with the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” a work of fiction that was widely viewed as blasphemy toward Muslims and the prophet Muhammad. In 1989, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his death, and a private Iranian foundation offered a multimillion-dollar bounty to back it up.

Rushdie has been in hiding ever since. He now lives somewhere in Britain, which has taken the lead in trying to negotiate a resolution. A friend of the author said he would have no comment for now.

Britain’s Foreign Office reacted coolly Tuesday to Khatami’s statement, saying the government would reserve judgment until Foreign Secretary Robin Cook meets privately with Kharrazi here Thursday.

“At first sight, the statement appears encouraging,” a Foreign Office spokesman said. “But we’re not overreacting to what we heard today. We need clarification. We have to nail down exactly what the Iranian government position is. That’s not exactly clear yet.”

The spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name, said the government would like to hear that the fatwa has been lifted.


Washington also responded cautiously. Action to rescind the death sentence “would be a welcome development,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said. But he noted that words “sometimes come in many different voices when it comes to Iran.”

Khatami, a moderate Islamic cleric whose election last year marked a significant shift in Iranian politics, did not formally rescind the 10-year-old death sentence Tuesday. But he said that “we should think of the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished” and added that Iran has now entered a new phase in its relationship with the outside world.

“We believe that what was shown during the Salman Rushdie case was a manifestation of the war of civilizations which was begun by the West against Muslims,” he said. “From now onward, we want--rather than a war of civilizations--to push forward a dialogue of civilizations. We hope we have entered that era of dialogue.”

Khatami said he believes firmly in freedom of speech, including the publication in Iran of books and articles opposed to official thinking. “Each day there are hundreds of books or articles published the world over that are against our way of thinking, and we are not against that,” he said. “Many of those are translated in Iran and published and formally disseminated.”

But Iran’s politicians remain deeply divided. In the days since Khatami left Iran for his debut at the United Nations, his nation’s independent judiciary has closed three liberal, pro-Khatami newspapers. On Tuesday, two senior members of the government’s Islamic Republic News Agency were arrested.

On a host of issues, the reformist leader has found himself facing a virtual political siege when he has pushed for specific steps to promote a more open dialogue, both at home and with the outside world. A formal resolution of the Rushdie dispute could spark new friction with conservatives.


Khatami was generous in his descriptions of the United States, a country Iranian leaders for years called the “Great Satan.” He said his foremost wish on this, his first trip to America, was that he had 20 days to walk around incognito and “see the institutions and talk to the people” of New York.

The Iranian leader offered lavish praise for Americans generally, saying, “In addition to industriousness, innovation, creativity and hard work, the power and strength that the United States has is not given by politicians but is the result of the efforts by its people.”

Khatami said he sensed a different tone Monday in President Clinton’s U.N. address, which called for development of “common goals and endeavors” with the Islamic world. But he said there has been no change in official U.S. behavior since January, when Khatami tried to break the ice by calling, in a televised interview, for cultural exchanges with the United States.

Addressing Iran’s growing tensions with Afghanistan, Khatami promised to explore “all efforts” to avoid armed conflict. “Iran is ready to defend its security and territorial integrity, but we are making all efforts so that, God willing, there will not be a war,” he said.

Iranian officials said they hope that U.S. proposals offered Monday at a meeting held under U.N. auspices will form the basis for a diplomatic resolution of Iran’s conflict with Afghanistan, which is ruled by the Taliban militia, a rival Islamic government.

Khatami, however, noted pointedly that the “mere existence” of the orthodox Taliban in the region is dangerous. “We have deep concerns about the Taliban, so no matter how much diplomatic effort there is,” he said, “it will not be in proportion to the concern we have.”


Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in London contributed to this report.