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Monday, October 12, 1998 Published at 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK

Iran: The battleground of old and new

Ayatollah Khamene'i and President Khatami - a hardliner and a reformist

Middle East correspondent, Jim Muir, reports from Iran.

We dragged ourselves out of bed in the middle of the night, and by six in the morning we were flying out of Tehran on the red-eye shuttle down to Ahvaz, near the head of the Gulf, in south-west Iran.

We had come down here, not on a hot political story, but in search of something much more innocent: Palm trees. Several million of them were destroyed during eight years of war with Iraq, and I was interested in seeing what was being done to regenerate them.

[ image: Palm tree - not innocent enough]
Palm tree - not innocent enough
We had spent weeks preparing the trip, getting specific permissions faxed from one ministry in Tehran to another. Iran is a highly-bureaucratic country, but once permissions are issued, it is usually plain sailing.

After checking in with the Ministry of Agriculture branch in Ahvaz, we drove down to Abadan, about 80 miles away and right on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which forms the often-disputed border with Iraq.

At the even more local Ministry of Agriculture branch there, it was hard to resist the offer to sit down while a quick call was made to check that all was in order.

A long wait

Fruit was offered. And of course tea, which the Iranians drink from glasses, sipping it through lumps of sugar clenched between the front teeth; Iranian dentists are onto a good thing.

To cut a long and very tedious story short, we were still there five hours later. Countless phonecalls were made, locally and to various ministries in Tehran, to no avail.

It seems that some local intelligence branch had not been expecting us, and despite all our permissions, the harmless nature of our mission, and the evident embarrassment of our hosts, they would not give way.

It was time to cut our losses and head ruefully back to Ahvaz to salvage what we could at the agricultural research centre there, before making for the airport and the evening flight back to Tehran.

It was a salutary, if time-consuming lesson in how things work in Iran.

Or often do not.

A similar lesson

As we returned to Tehran, a similar lesson was emerging over the Salman Rushdie affair.

A few days earlier, the British and Iranian foreign ministers had announced the upgrading of relations to ambassadorial level, following a carefully-crafted statement from the Iranian minister distancing his government from Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa and the $2.8m reward offered by an Iranian foundation for the hapless, if wealthy, author's head.

[ image: Salman Rushide -
Salman Rushide - "the duty of all Muslims to carry out the death order"
Surely, diplomats in Tehran reasoned, the reformist President Khatami and his foreign minister would not have embarked on such a domestically-controversial course without first getting a green light from the hardliners, and especially the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene'i.

But now, here were the hardliners, opening up with all barrels. First came the conservative newspapers, including those deemed to reflect the leader's views.

The fatwa was still valid, said one, and nothing had changed, except that Salman Rushdie's wishful thinking might actually speed up its implementation.

Next came a group of senior ayatollahs, who declared that it was still the duty of all Muslims to carry out the death order.

Then it was the turn of the Majlis or parliament, where well over half of the deputies signed a petition declaring the fatwa sacrosanct and saying:

"The verdict on Rushdie, the blasphemer is death, both today and tomorrow, and to burn in hell for all eternity."

I went along to see the outfit which is offering the reward, the 15th of Khordad Foundation. It is an unremarkable multi-storey office building in a busy street in central Tehran.

Needless to say, I did not manage to see its boss, Ayatollah Sanei, because I did not have an appointment. But the foundation is still there and so is the bounty offer.

What has changed?

I came away asking myself, "What has changed?" The Rushdie affair remains, as it always has been, one of many footballs being kicked around in the often vicious struggle between hardliners and reformists.

If Iran as a whole had changed, the reward would be withdrawn, and you would not have more than half the parliament inciting Salman Rushdie's death.

What has changed, is that the British Government, and part of the Iranian regime, have decided to abstract the Rushdie affair from their mutual relations.

That is all very fine and well. But if I were Mr Rushdie, I would not be in too much of a hurry to change my lifestyle just yet.

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