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Iran denies involvement but justifies Salman Rushdie attack

TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian government official denied on Monday that Tehran was involved in the assault on author Salman Rushdie, though he justified the stabbing in remarks that represented the Islamic Republic's first public comments on the attack.

The comments by Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman of Iran's Foreign Ministry, came more than two days after the attack on Rushdie in New York. The writer has now been taken off a ventilator and is recovering, according to his family.

However, Iran has denied carrying out other operations abroad targeting dissidents in the years since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite prosecutors and Western governments attributing such attacks back to Tehran. And while Iran hasn't focused on the writer in recent years, a decades-old fatwa demanding his killing still stands.

"Regarding the attack against Salman Rushdie in America, we don't consider anyone deserving reproach, blame or even condemnation, except for (Rushdie) himself and his supporters," Kanaani said.

"In this regard, no one can blame the Islamic Republic of Iran," he added. "We believe that the insults made and the support he received was an insult against followers of all religions."

Rushdie, 75, was stabbed Friday while attending an event in western New York. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, his agent Andrew Wylie said. Rushdie was likely to lose the injured eye.

His assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the attack through his lawyer.

Rushdie has for more than 30 years faced death threats for "The Satanic Verses." Iran's late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding his death. A semiofficial Iranian foundation had put up a bounty of over $3 million for the author, though it has yet to offer any comment on the attack.

Police in New York have offered no motive yet for the attack, though District Attorney Jason Schmidt alluded to the bounty on Rushdie in arguing against bail during a hearing Saturday.

"Even if this court were to set a million dollars bail, we stand a risk that bail could be met," Schmidt said.

Matar was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border, according to the village's mayor. Flags of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, along with portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders, hang across the village. Israel also has bombarded Hezbollah positions near there in the past.

In his remarks Monday, Kanaani added that Iran did not "have any other information more than what the American media has reported." He also implied that Rushdie brought the attack on himself.

"Salman Rushdie exposed himself to popular anger and fury through insulting the sacredness of Islam and crossing the red lines of over 1.5 billion Muslims and also red lines of followers of all divine religions," Kanaani said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while not directly blaming Tehran for the attack on Rushdie, made a point to mention Iran in a statement early Monday praising the writer's efforts in supporting freedom of expression and religion.

"Iranian state institutions have incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media recently gloated about the attempt on his life," Blinken said. "This is despicable."

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul condemned the attack on Rushdie at a lecture Sunday, saying that "a man with a knife cannot silence a man with a pen."

Khomeini, in poor health in the last year of his life after the grinding, stalemated 1980s Iran-Iraq war had decimated the country's economy, issued the fatwa on Rushdie in 1989. The Islamic edict came amid a violent uproar in the Muslim world over the novel, which some viewed as blasphemously making suggestions about the Prophet Muhammad's life.

While fatwas can be revised or revoked, Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who took over after Khomeini — has never done so. As recently as February 2017, Khamenei said: "The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued."

Since 1979, Iran has targeted dissidents abroad in attacks. Tensions with the West — particularly the United States — have spiked since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

A Trump-ordered drone strike killed a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in 2020, further fueling those tensions.

Last week, the U.S. charged a Guard member in absentia for allegedly plotting to kill one-time Trump adviser and Iran hawk John Bolton. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an aide are under 24-hour security over alleged threats from Iran.

Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors say Iran tried to kidnap in 2021 an Iranian opposition activist and writer living in New York. In recent days, a man with an assault rifle was arrested near her home.

Other denials from the Foreign Ministry have included Tehran's transfer of weapons to Yemen's Houthi rebels amid that country's long civil war. Independent experts, Western nations and U.N. experts have traced weapon components back to Iran.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press