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Why the Rushdie affair continues

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Sunday, February 14, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT

World: Middle East

Analysis: Why the Rushdie affair continues

The fatwa was declared 10 years ago

By Iranian affairs reporter Sadeq Saba

The Rushdie affair is a focus for the power struggle between moderates and conservatives in Iran

It is becoming like a ritual.

Every year on the anniversary of the fatwa the conservatives reiterate that the death sentence against Salman Rushdie should be carried out and they warn their moderate rivals against any compromise.

Therefore it is no surprise that Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, the leader of the religious foundation that offered the original reward for killing Mr Rushdie, has said that the offer still stands.

But what is different this time is the fact that the government of the reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, for the first time publicly committed itself last September to do nothing to carry out the death threat and distanced itself from the reward.

Embarrassing issue

Mr Khatami and his Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who read the Iranian statement in front of the United Nations building in New York, should be quite embarrassed by the whole issue.

[ image: For a while Salman Rushdie thought the fatwa was over]
For a while Salman Rushdie thought the fatwa was over
Ayatollah Sanei is closely connected with the conservatives in the Iranian leadership. His 15th Khordad foundation is a kind of semi-official charity set up to help the poor.

Ayatollah Sanei is the personal representative of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the organisation.

Ayatollah Khamenei also appointed him as a member of the powerful Expediency Council, which acts as an advisory body for the supreme leader.

The Revolutionary Guards, who also issued a statement saying the fatwa was irrevocable, are similarly controlled by the conservatives and their commander is directly appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Conservative papers, such as Jomhuri-e Islami, also follow the issue vigorously.

Political football

It appears that Salman Rushdie has become a kind of political football for the opposing factions in the Iranian leadership.

The conservatives are opposed to President Khatami's efforts to improve relations with the West and with the United Kingdom in particular. They know that the West is sensitive about the fate of Mr Rushdie and they deliberately insist on implementing the fatwa in order to thwart Mr Khatami's efforts.

[ image: Muslims in Bombay burn an effigy of Salman Rushdie]
Muslims in Bombay burn an effigy of Salman Rushdie
The conservatives even forced the government to reaffirm that the death fatwa was irrevocable despite its commitment not to implement it.

The conservatives have even succeeded in delaying the exchange of ambassadors between Tehran and London, which was planned to happen months ago.

Mr Khatami's plans to improve relations with the United Kingdom also suffered badly when over half the members of parliament signed a statement last week urging the government not to seek improved relations with Iran.

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