Iran makes a mild stab at a new moderation Rushdie contract: Partial removal of death sentence for foreign author is partly reassuring.

September 28, 1998

SALMAN Rushdie seemed to think that the announcement by Iran's government that it no longer sought his death made him a free man. The Indian-born British author had been living underground since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a decree in 1989 proclaiming the duty of all Muslims to kill him.

Now Iran's government dissociates itself from that decree. Its bounty for the murder of a British citizen had violated British sovereignty, put Iran beyond the pale of international law and poisoned relations with London. President Mohammad Khatami's gesture away from that was enough for British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to announce immediate steps to improve relations.

Perhaps Mr. Rushdie can go about normally again. But Iran's leadership is split. Spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commander of the armed forces, has not rescinded the decree. And a religious foundation's offer of $2.5 million to anyone carrying it out still stands.

Mr. Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," contained material lost on most Western readers but offensive to believing Muslims. In harshly judging the reaction of some Islamic authorities, Westerners were asked how they would accept such blasphemy of Christianity or Judaism.

The best answer was the 1914 satiric novel, "Revolt of the Angels," by Anatole France. It was as blasphemous of Catholicism as Mr. Rushdie's work was of Islam. And the result? Mr. France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.

The new moderation showing in Tehran should be encouraged. But even Mr. Khatami is gradualistic about it, telling reporters at the United Nations in New York not to expect a speedy resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States. He pushes cultural relations, such as the friendly exchange of wrestlers, instead. And Iran has yet to renounce support for international terrorism or development of weapons of mass destruction.

Iran's rulers, extremist and moderate, have an ulterior motive for improving relations with the West, beyond seeking capital for oil development. They appear to be preparing for war with Islamic ** rivals in neighboring Afghanistan. Even fanatics value pragmatism when deciding how many enemies to engage at one time.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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