MOSCOW — Iran's senior political leader declared here Thursday that the death sentence pronounced by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on author Salman Rushdie for his novel "Satanic Verses" cannot be changed.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, told a press conference at the conclusion of a visit here that the "prescription" against Rushdie on charges of blasphemy and apostasy cannot be annulled.
"This is not the sort of prescription that can be taken back," Rafsanjani said. "We cannot, in the name of God, take back that prescription. There is no one in Iran who would want to or could take back that prescription."
Rafsanjani's uncompromising response seems certain--like Khomeini's original condemnation--to bring strong Western criticism of Tehran, and with it the new Iranian leader appeared to signal that Iran has no immediate intentions of repairing its relations with the West as it now has with the Soviet Union.
"The West does not understand this question," Rafsanjani said, implicitly contrasting the outrage in the West with the broad official silence of the Soviet Union and most of its allies on the Rushdie affair. "What Iran said was according to the Sharia (Islamic law) . . . and not a personal opinion.
"The entire Islamic world, in spite of some differences, is united in one voice in approving that prescription."
Most Muslims consider the novel to be blasphemous and object particularly to its implication that the Koran is not the word of God but the creation of the prophet Mohammed. Rushdie, who was born to Muslim parents in Bombay, India, but now lives in Britain and no longer practices religion, is also accused of apostasy for forsaking and attacking Islam.
Khomeini, in a statement issued in February as Muslims around the world protested against the novel, declared: "The author of the book 'Satanic Verses,' which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death."
Iranian clerics then offered a $5.2-million reward for Rushdie's execution, and he has been in hiding ever since.
The sole candidate in the presidential election next month, Rafsanjani is widely expected to emerge as Iran's top political leader, and his press conference was one of his first opportunities since Khomeini's death June 3 to lay out his views in an international forum.
Rafsanjani, asked about prospects for improved relations with the United States, chronicled Washington's past "offenses against the Iranian people" over the years, ending with the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which he described as the latest of the U.S. "plots and conspiracies" against Iran.
"For all these reasons, the Americans saw their position (in Iran) damaged," he said, suggesting there would be no earlier improvement despite Khomeini's death.
Praises Soviet Ties
In contrast, he praised the recent blossoming of the Soviet Union's relations with Iran after a decade marked by severe strains, and he said his talks here with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev have justified Tehran's hope for a further improvement.
"New horizons are opening up," he said, speaking in Persian with his comments translated into Russian by an official interpreter. "We have almost reached all of our goals for this visit, and we have taken some major steps in expanding our bilateral ties."
In addition to a series of agreements on economic and technical cooperation that call for an expansion of trade and Soviet participation in Iran's development program over the next decade, the two countries issued a broad declaration Thursday pledging political and diplomatic cooperation and greater cultural and religious contacts.
The Soviet Union also declared its readiness to help Iran "strengthen its defense capacity," and Rafsanjani indicated that Tehran's preference was mostly for "technological assistance" that would build up the Iranian munitions industry so that it could produce its own aircraft, missiles and electronic equipment as well as artillery and armored vehicles.
Moscow was the principal arms supplier to Iraq during the war with Iran, and its agreement to help rebuild the Iranian military marks an important shift in the alliances of the region.
The welcome Rafsanjani received here was one that the Kremlin usually reserves for the most respected heads of state, and it was clearly meant to celebrate the dramatic improvement in Soviet-Iranian relations.
He invited Gorbachev to pay a visit to Iran, and the Soviet leader, thanking him, said that Moscow looks forward to extensive contacts with Tehran at all levels as their relations develop.
Afghanistan War Discussed
Rafsanjani said he and Gorbachev discussed the continuing war in Afghanistan, which had been a major issue between the Soviet Union and Iran over the past decade. With the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country last February, he said, "it is now up to the Afghan people themselves to settle things.
"We, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and China must as neighboring countries help the Afghan people to decide this Afghan problem," he added. Iran, he continued, is discussing the situation with the Muslim rebels, the moujahedeen, some of whom have been based in Iran, in the hope of promoting a political settlement.