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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 17:29 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: Allan Little ]Allan Little

The Iranian government hopes to restart talks over what effectively amounted to a death sentence imposed on British author Salman Rushdie whose novel The Satanic Verses it condemned as blasphemous. In an interview with a British newspaper, the minister of Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, said he wanted to resume negotiations now that European ambassadors had returned to Teheran. Britain wants the religious decree or 'Fatwa' against Mr Rushdie overturned, but as our Religious Affairs Reporter Jane Little reports, that is an unlikely outcome:

It was in 1989 that the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued his Fatwa - or spiritual opinion - that effectively condemned Salman Rushdie to death. It came after a wave of often violent demonstrations by Muslims around the world.

Mr Rushdie, who is a non-practising Muslim, was seen in his book to be mocking Islam's Holy Book, the Koran, its prophet and his wives whose names he associated with prostitutes. This year a reward for his death was increased to more than $2m.

The diplomatic tensions with the West over the Rushdie affair have created significant blocks to relations, but now as Iran's new leadership opens doors to the West, the Fatwa question is back on the agenda. There are many problems with overturning it.

Technically a Fatwa dies with the person who pronounced it, but for many Shiite Muslims in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini's edicts remain sacroscant. His Fatwa on Mr Rushdie has been endorsed by the current Ayatollah Khameinei and to withdraw it would have huge political ramifications. But the fact that minister Mohajerani, who has been outspoken on civil freedoms, has proposed to reopen talks, is a heartening sign for the West.

But while western diplomats demand a letter from Iran revoking the decree, they may get second best - a ruling which says it is not in the state's interests to carry out the death sentence.

A commitment which in practical terms may be of limited comfort to Mr Rushdie.

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