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Iran denies involvement in attack on Salman Rushdie but says it was justified

Author Salman Rushdie
Author Salman Rushdie attends the 68th National Book Awards ceremony Nov. 15, 2017, in New York.
(Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)

An Iranian government official denied Monday that Tehran was involved in the attack on author Salman Rushdie, but he justified the stabbing in the Islamic Republic’s first public comments on the assault.

The comments by Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, come more than two days after the attack on Rushdie in New York state.

However, Iran has denied carrying out other operations abroad targeting dissidents in the years since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite prosecutors and Western governments attributing such attacks to Tehran. And while Iran hasn’t focused on Rushdie in recent years, a decades-old fatwa demanding his killing still stands.

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“Regarding the attack against Salman Rushdie in America, we don’t consider anyone deserving reproach, blame or even condemnation, except for [Rushdie] himself and his supporters,” Kanaani said.

“In this regard, no one can blame the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he added. “We believe that the insults made and the support he received was an insult against followers of all religions.”

The author of ‘The Satanic Verses’ faces a long recovery after being stabbed at a lecture in upstate New York. A suspect has pleaded not guilty.

Rushdie, 75, was stabbed Friday while attending an event in western New York. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, his agent said. He is likely to lose the injured eye but has been taken off a ventilator and is “on the road to recovery,” according to his agent.

His assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty through his lawyer to charges stemming from the attack.

For more than 30 years, the award-winning Rushdie has faced death threats for his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding his death. A semi-official Iranian foundation had put up a bounty of more than $3 million for the author; it has yet to comment on the attack.

Police in New York have offered no motive yet for the attack, though Dist. Atty. Jason Schmidt alluded to the bounty on Rushdie in arguing against bail during a hearing Saturday.

A fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 over his book ‘The Satanic Verses.’ But what is a fatwa and how has it affected his life and career?

“Even if this court were to set $1 million bail, we stand a risk that bail could be met,” Schmidt said.

Matar was born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border, according to the village’s mayor. Flags of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, along with portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders, hang across the village. Israel also has bombarded Hezbollah positions near there in the past.

In Yaroun, village records show that Matar holds Lebanese citizenship and is identified as a Shiite, an official there said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said Matar’s father still lives there but has been in seclusion since the attack.

In his remarks Monday, Kanaani added that Iran did not “have any other information more than what the American media have reported.” He also implied that Rushdie brought the attack on himself.

It has been banned throughout the Muslim world, and at least six people have died in riots against it.

“Salman Rushdie exposed himself to popular anger and fury through insulting the sacredness of Islam and crossing the red lines of over 1.5 billion Muslims and also red lines of followers of all divine religions,” Kanaani said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, while not directly blaming Tehran for the attack on Rushdie, made a point of mentioning Iran in a statement early Monday praising the writer’s efforts in supporting freedom of expression and religion.

“Iranian state institutions have incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media recently gloated about the attempt on his life,” Blinken said. “This is despicable.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul condemned the attack on Rushdie at a lecture Sunday, saying that “a man with a knife cannot silence a man with a pen.”

Khomeini, in poor health in the last year of his life after the grinding, stalemated 1980s Iran-Iraq war had decimated the country’s economy, issued the fatwa on Rushdie in 1989. The edict came amid a violent uproar in the Muslim world over the novel, which some viewed as blasphemously making suggestions about the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

While fatwas can be revised or revoked, Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who took over after Khomeini — has never done so. As recently as February 2017, Khamenei said: “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”

Since 1979, Iran has targeted dissidents abroad in attacks. Tensions with the West, particularly the U.S., have spiked since then-President Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

A Trump-ordered drone strike killed a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in 2020, further fueling those tensions.

President Biden wraps up his first Middle East trip with warnings on Russia, Iran, but no apologies for meeting with autocrats.

Last week, the U.S. charged a Guard member in absentia with allegedly plotting to kill one-time Trump advisor and Iran hawk John Bolton. Former U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and an aide are under 24-hour security over alleged threats from Iran.

Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors say Iran tried last year to kidnap an Iranian opposition activist and writer living in New York. In recent days, a man with an assault rifle was arrested near her home.

Other denials from the Foreign Ministry have included Tehran’s transfer of weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels amid that country’s long civil war. Independent experts, Western nations and United Nations experts have traced weapon components back to Iran.


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