It will probably never be known whether the 24-year-old Lebanese American man who repeatedly stabbed world-renowned author Salman Rushdie on August 12 acted with the help of Iran or Hezbollah. What is known, however, is that Hadi Matar’s assault on Rushdie was preceded by a flurry of media reports suggesting that negotiators in Vienna are closing in on an agreement to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
This short sequence of events has spawned a host of conspiracy theories regarding possible links between the attack and ongoing nuclear talks. In Iran, some Reformists hold that hardliners linked to the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) used Matar in the hope that his act would scuttle the Vienna talks. And in the United States, critics of a revived deal have pointed to the attack to strengthen their case that the US is wrong to pursue its current course of action. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, for example, noted that the Rushdie attack came only days after the US Justice Department announced its indictment of an IRGC operative for plotting to kill former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Meanwhile, just one month earlier, an armed man was arrested outside the Brooklyn home of Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad, who was previously the target of a kidnapping plot organized in 2021 by Iranian intelligence, four of whose agents were indicted by a federal court. After reviewing these and other reports of Iranian efforts to silence its critics abroad, Stephens returns to the attack on Rushdie, calling it an outrage that the “free world” must “stand up to.”
Whether Iran was involved in the attack on Rushdie or not, the fact that hardline media outlets have celebrated Rushdie’s suffering and the supposed “heroism” of his assailant is indeed an outrage.
Whether Iran was involved in the attack on Rushdie or not, the fact that hardline media outlets have celebrated Rushdie’s suffering and the supposed “heroism” of his assailant is indeed an outrage. Equally troubling are remarks by Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor who also advises Iran’s negotiating team, and whose tweet stating, “I won’t be shedding tears for a writer who spouts endless hatred and contempt for Muslims and Islam,” must have made US officials in Vienna cringe. That said, would walking away from the talks provide an effective means of “standing up” to Iran? Or, as advocates of a renewed deal argue, would it only open the path for Iran to accelerate its nuclear program without the restraints of international monitoring?
Although there are no simple answers to such basic strategic questions, Marandi’s words highlight the vexing challenge of dealing with a regime that is dominated by hardliners who are determined to use every possible opening to display their religious or ideological credentials, not to mention their antagonism toward the US. That they have done so even as negotiators are reportedly striving to overcome the last obstacles to a nuclear deal underscores the confounding mix of cold pragmatism and doctrinaire hostility that has long defined Iranian foreign policy.
Khomeini’s Command, Then and Now
The Iranian hardliners’ celebration of the attack on Rushdie came at a particularly tricky time for the regime and its negotiators in Vienna. After all, press reports suggest that Tehran has signaled its readiness to compromise on an issue on which it had previously insisted it would not budge: the question of taking the IRGC off the US list of foreign terrorist organizations. Given the centrality of the IRGC in Iran’s political system and its official role as a defender of state ideology, it would be no easy task for Tehran to live with a Department of State designation that the Trump White House worked to secure, clearly expecting that it would not only further isolate Iran on the international stage, but would also preclude a revival of the JCPOA. The fact that Iran’s government may now be ready to put aside its previous objections underscores the economic benefits that Iranian leaders expect to flow if nuclear-related sanctions are removed, or at least suspended, with a new agreement.
The fact that Iran’s government may now be ready to put aside its previous objections underscores the economic benefits that Iranian leaders expect to flow if nuclear-related sanctions are removed, or at least suspended, with a new agreement.
These economic imperatives might also help explain why Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thus far refrained from commenting on the Rushdie attack. That task has fallen to the semi-official hardline press, or to the likes of Marandi. This arrangement opens a space for regime hardliners to voice their “revolutionary” impulses, but without exposing Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s government—or Khamenei for that matter—to western (and especially US) charges that Iran was complicit in the assault. The government’s response to the attack on Rushdie thus strikes a balance between its economic interests and its ideological legitimacy.
But Khamenei’s muted response to the Rushdie attack is not merely a result of this long-standing balancing act. Rather, it also reflects theological and political considerations that can be traced back to the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, and to a pronouncement made by Khamenei’s predecessor, the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Although the story of Khomeini’s issuance of a fatwa—a religious opinion—calling for Rushdie’s death due to his novel’s blasphemous portrayal of Islam is well known, Khomeini did not in fact issue a fatwa. Rather, he issued a hukm, which is a stronger religious command. A fatwa is an opinion that Muslims can choose to follow or to ignore in favor of an alternative opinion issued by another Islamic jurist. Moreover, in the context of Shia jurisprudence, a fatwa carries little legal weight once its author dies. By contrast, a hukm is a legal judgment or order that carries an authority that should presumably outlive its original author. Indeed, when Khamenei became supreme leader following the death of Khomeini, he and other clerical leaders argued that they could not rescind Khomeini’s call for Muslims to kill Rushdie because his words constituted a hukm.
Beyond just theological issues, Khomeini’s pronouncement was animated by his desire to leverage the Rushdie controversy to communicate a fundamental message, namely that the Islamic Republic of Iran—and its founding leader—spoke not just for Iran and Iranian Shia Muslims, but also for the wider Islamic world. The opportunity to make this pan-Islamic case emerged some six months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, and in the wake of street protests in Pakistan. Khomeini used the riots both to assert his credentials as a global Islamic leader and to recapitulate his authority as “supreme leader” on the home front. By issuing a religious command, he underscored a political and ideological rationale that could not be easily erased after his death in June 1989.
Round One: Reformists and Hardliners
While this story may seem like ancient history, the Rushdie controversy left a legacy that for decades played a role in political struggles between Iranian Reformists and their hardline rivals. The first round in this story unfolded during the 1990s, when then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani backed a series of international negotiations, the purpose of which was to signal his government’s desire to move beyond (if not bury) Khomeini’s command. This move was fundamental to Rafsanjani’s economic reform agenda, which required reengaging western states and opening up Iran to foreign investment. Although he achieved mixed results regarding the latter goal, by the mid-1990s the Rushdie affair began receding from the radar screen of Iran’s foreign relations.
This development became especially important following Sayyid Mohammad Khatami’s election to the presidency in 1997. An advocate of a “dialogue among civilizations,” his bid to advance a bold political reform agenda antagonized hardliners. Seeking to undermine Khatami and his Reformist allies, hardliners used every trick in the book, including increasing to $2.5 million the bounty that the 15 Khordad Foundation had already offered to pay anyone who would kill Rushdie (the bounty reached $3.9 million in 2016). Not surprisingly, this move came in concert with efforts by the Khatami administration to renew ties with western states. Thus, at the September 1998 United Nations General Assembly meeting Khatami announced that “we should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished.” And then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi asserted that his government had “no intention, nor will it take any action” to threaten Rushdie’s life.
Rafsanjani played a key role in efforts to distance the government from the Rushdie controversy. Indeed, he tried to set the diplomatic table by asserting that the 15 Khordad Foundation “is a non-governmental foundation and their decisions are not related to government policies.”
Rafsanjani played a key role in efforts to distance the government from the Rushdie controversy. Indeed, he tried to set the diplomatic table by asserting that the 15 Khordad Foundation “is a non-governmental foundation and their decisions are not related to government policies.” This, however, was a distinction without a difference, as there were extensive links between the foundation and powerful bodies such as the IRGC. Still, Rafsanjani’s dubious claim underscored the challenges that Iranian Reformists faced in their bid to contain their hardline rivals. While Reformists were virtually banished from the political arena for seven years, in 2013 then President Hassan Rouhani tried to open up a space for Reformist leaders, even though his government included prominent hardliners, and even as he advanced international talks to resolve the nuclear question and thus end (or at least suspend) nuclear-related economic sanctions. As is common knowledge, these efforts were dealt a severe blow when the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, a move that undercut the Reformists and thus set the stage for the election of Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency in 2021.
Round Two: Reformists, Hardliners, Rushdie and the World
Even though Raisi’s government is dominated by hardliners and enjoys the keen support of Khamenei, it has nevertheless been marked by divisions on various issues, including the fate of the JCPOA. By rekindling a controversy that all the parties assumed had gone away years ago, the attack on Rushdie has added an unexpected, if mostly unwelcome, element in this debate. At the same time, the various accounts and conspiracy theories that have been prompted by the assault on Rushdie are part of a wider and more complicated domestic, regional, and global picture that has yet to come into full focus.
As noted above, despite, or perhaps because of, the absence of any direct comment or authoritative statement by Khamenei, Iran’s semi-official hardline media outlets expressed nothing short of jubilation following the assault on Rushdie. To take just one example, Iranian newspaper Kayhan wished “A thousand bravos…to the brave and dutiful person who attacked the apostate and evil Salman Rushdie in New York,” adding that, “The hand of the man who tore the neck of God’s enemy must be kissed.” The paper also issued a thinly-veiled threat, insisting that the assault against Salman Rushdie “demonstrated that exacting revenge on American soil is not so hard.” Indeed, the same editorial mentioned former President Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, thus intimating that they could or should be targets for the same treatment.
The Iranian government, meanwhile, has denied any part in the Rushdie attack. But at the same time, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani asserted that “We do not consider anyone other than [Rushdie] and his supporters worthy of blame and even condemnation.” He thus intimated that any individual who insults the Prophet Muhammed ought to be avenged by a Muslim brave enough to act on behalf of the Islamic community. By holding that Rushdie’s attacker sought justice for all Muslims, Kanaani and other hardliners, including Marandi, are reiterating a pan-Islamic message designed to transcend both the Shia foundations of the Islamic Republic and its guiding ideology. They are thus not only echoing a position that Khomeini took during the first round of the Rushdie controversy, but are reiterating a theme that hardliners have long defended.
Reformists are certainly not celebrating the attack on Rushdie, nor are they supporting the theological or religious justifications that their hardline rivals have evoked.
By contrast, Reformists are certainly not celebrating the attack on Rushdie, nor are they supporting the theological or religious justifications that their hardline rivals have evoked. Instead, they are focusing on political themes and explanations, some of which border on conspiracy theories. The most popular theme, as noted above, is that the timing of the attack was no chance occurrence. Such was the position expressed by veteran Reformist Abbas Abdi. Others have taken this argument one step further. Seyed Jalal Sadatian, who was previously Iran’s Chargé d’affaires in the UK during Rouhani’s Reformist administration, suggested that the Rushdie attack was part of an Israeli-organized false flag operation.
In making their case, these and other Reformists have echoed, and in some cases directly cited, the controversial tweet that Marandi issued following the attack on Rushdie, wherein, in addition to his gloating over Rushdie’s death, he seemed to suggest that the US was fabricating the supposed threat on Bolton’s life in order to scuttle nuclear talks. Although other Reformists have rejected such wild conspiracy theories, the fact that others have echoed their hardline rivals’ positions suggests real desperation. Beleaguered and isolated, the Reformists are still hoping for some sort of miracle that might open up space for Iran to reengage with the international community. The Vienna talks over the fate of the JCPOA may be their last best—even if very imperfect—hope.
Grappling with Multiple Imperatives
Regardless, it would be a mistake to assume that there is a sharp divide between Reformists backing the talks and hardliners opposing them. Apart from the fact that Khamenei himself has not yet shut the door to some kind of compromise, hardliners are hardly in agreement about the ultimate fate of the talks or the concessions Iran should give to produce a deal.
Hardline MP Mahmoud Nabavian has thus assailed Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief negotiator in Vienna. “Our friends,” Nabavian warned, “have appeared weak in the [nuclear] talks.” But Bagheri Kani is no Reformist. A key member of a hardline pragmatic camp that has served successive presidents, he possesses ample “revolutionary” credentials, including his familial ties to the supreme leader, whose daughter is married to Bagheri Kani’s brother. If he compromises on hot button issues such as the US terrorist listing of the IRGC, he will do so only if he can secure the guarantee that the US will not once again walk away from a deal and unilaterally reimpose sanctions. This is a bottom-line position that, if incorporated as part of a deal, may not only open the door for Iran to secure much-needed economic benefits, but may also help prevent the one scenario that the US and Iran want to avoid—a direct or sustained military confrontation.
Iran’s hardliners—as scholars of Iran have emphasized—depend on maintaining some level of conflict with the US in order to uphold and renew their credentials as true “revolutionaries.” Thus they will not abide any process that invites wider engagement with the US. In this sense, it is true that the ideological imperatives of the Islamic Republic that hardliners espouse limit the space for the “dialogue among civilizations” that Khatami and other Reformists have struggled to advance both at home and abroad. But Iran’s hardliner leaders cannot predict, nor fully control, the direction in which even a limited agreement will take Iran, especially as the country grapples with an increasingly volatile region, a multitude of contending interests and challenges, and a seemingly never-ending supply of unexpected events.
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