WHATEVER else the British may have achieved with last week's agreement with Iran, Salman Rushdie's safety cannot be guaranteed - and both governments know it. But perhaps that's not the point of the whole exercise. Rushdie is incidental - not central - to British- Iranian relations, which is why so much has been bartered in the deal.
The British government (and the Rushdie campaign committee) have acceded to the nine-year-old Iranian claims that the fatwa cannot be removed once issued by a legitimate authority - and you can't get more legitimate than Ayatollah Khomeini, Leader of the Revolution and de facto head of state. It has also accepted that the reward offered for a successful assassination of Rushdie lies outside the remit of the Iranian government.
The fatwa is still in force, the reward is still on offer - so what's so new that encourages Salman Rushdie to feel free to nibble publishing house canapes without fear of being poisoned by anything other than literary salmonella? The way to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain has been cleared by the very public declaration - by the Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi - of something that the Iranian government has been saying privately for years. But it has taken a long time to get this far - because of internal political battles inside Iran and the changing international situation rather than any sudden Iranian conversion to belief in international law and the freedom of speech.
Still, it took a lot of courage for President Khatami's government to go ahead with a full, public renunciation of a government- sponsored implementation of the fatwa. It shows how far the moderates have gone in their battle to get Iran accepted back into the international community with all the expected economic benefits that the country so desperately needs.
President Khatami has thrown down the turban to the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, the guardian of the law, who has inherited the leadership of those who still follow the uncompromising Khomeini principles.
Inside Iran (after the initial genuine revulsion at what the Iranians thought was in The Satanic Verses), the Rushdie Issue became the litmus test of what was regarded as the true implementation of the principles of Revolutionary Islam. Even though the Iranian foreign office and more pragmatic government ministers realised early on that the Rushdie issue was going to be a major sticking point in relations with the West, no one, not even the wily Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president, dared state what was said last week at the UN.
Thus, for the last six years, Iranian officials told journalists and the British Foreign Office that "no one was going to send paratroops after Rushdie". But six years ago that was not enough for the British, who insisted on the removal of the fatwa and the reward. Today it is the British who have accepted what they once would not, and that's because of the arrival of President Khatami, the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Gulf war - and the fact that Iran has quietly made itself the unofficial capital of the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union and the main access for new oil and gas discoveries in the Caspian littoral.
When Iran completed rail links with the economically important central Asian republics, and made Tehran the main junction, it went largely unreported in the West. But the size of oil and gas discoveries in the last few years has made good relations with Iran an economic imperative. Even the USA is warming to the idea that Iran is not a country composed solely of fundamentalist fanatics: 60 million potential customers sitting on the second largest natural gas deposits in the world are more than enough reasons to re-examine relations.
Alongside the obvious economic reasons for better relations with Iran, there have been encouraging signs that the fundamentalists no longer wield the power they once did. …