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Friday, September 25, 1998 Published at 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK

World: Middle East

UK and Iran turn a new page

Satanic Verses inflamed Muslim extremists' anger

Middle East analyst Roger Hardy reports on the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and the UK.

It has been a good week for Iran at the United Nations. Its president, Mohammad Khatami, on his first visit to the United States since his election last year, addressed the UN General Assembly, presenting himself as a voice of moderation.

Senior officials from Iran and the United States sat round the same table at an eight nation meeting designed to head off war between Iran and Afghanistan.

And now the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, has stood shoulder to shoulder with his British opposite number, Robin Cook, to declare that the two countries have put the Rushdie affair behind them.

[ image: Rushdie still has a price on his head]
Rushdie still has a price on his head
Their declaration was the result of a clever compromise. Iran has not repudiated Ayatollah Khomeini's death threat against Salman Rushdie.

Nor has it scrapped the offer of a US$2.5million reward for anyone who kills him.

To have done either would have earned the wrath of powerful hardliners in Iran.

Instead Mr Kharrazi has simply restated the Iranian position on the issue, but using stronger language than before to dissociate Iran from both the death threat and the reward.

Rushdie is not out of danger from extremists

This deprives the hardliners of any very obvious grounds for complaint, while allowing Britain to claim it has got what it wanted.

But how far is this the breakthrough British officials are proclaiming it to be?

It enables two governments to do what they have wanted to do for some time: normalise a relationship which is economically, as well as diplomatically, important to both sides.

It means that the Rushdie affair is now a non-governmental problem.

[ image: Kharrazi distancing Iran from the fatwa]
Kharrazi distancing Iran from the fatwa
If a Muslim extremist tries to kill Mr Rushdie, which still cannot be ruled out, Iranian officials will say this is nothing to do with them.

Just as important, this is a purely bilateral affair. There is little prospect, in the short run, of the United States joining Britain in normalising relations with Tehran.

US officials see the decision over Rushdie as one more sign that, under President Khatami, Iran is pursuing more constructive policies.

But they want to see more evidence that he and his supporters really are getting a grip on decision-making.

And that is the real problem. The normalisation of relations with Britain is undoubtedly a success for the moderates. But they remain under intense pressure from well entrenched and highly motivated opponents.

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