Dubai, United Arab Emirates — An Iranian government official on Monday denied that Tehran was involved in the attack on author Salman Rushdie, but justified the taunts with statements that were the Islamic Republic’s first public comments on the attack.
The comments from Nasser Kanaani, spokesman for 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 “on the road to recovery,” according to his agent.
However, Iran has denied conducting any other operations abroad against dissidents in the years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, although prosecutors and Western governments have blamed such attacks on Tehran. And while Iran hasn’t focused on the writer in recent years, a decades-old fatwa calling for his assassination still stands.
“In relation to the attack on Salman Rushdie in America, we hold no one to blame, blame or even condemnation other than (Rushdie) himself and his supporters,” Kanaani said.
“In this regard, no one can blame the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he added. “We believe the insults and support he received were an insult to followers of all religions.”
Rushdie, 75, was stabbed to death 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 would probably lose the injured eye.
His attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty through his attorney.
Rushdie has faced death threats for The Satanic Verses for more than 30 years. The late Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, calling for his death. A semi-official Iranian foundation has placed a bounty of over $3 million on the author’s head, although it has not yet commented on the attack.
Police in New York have yet to offer a motive for the attack, although District Attorney Jason Schmidt alluded to the bounty on Rushdie’s head when he argued bail during a Saturday hearing.
“Even if this court were to set bail at $1 million, we run the risk of bail being honored,” Schmidt said.
According to the village mayor, Matar was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, near the Israeli border. Flags of the Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah hang above the village along with portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders. Israel has also bombed nearby Hezbollah positions in the past.
In Yaroun, village records show that Matar has Lebanese citizenship and is identified as a Shia, a local official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said Matar’s father still lives there but has retired since the attack.
In his comments Monday, Kanaani added that Iran had “no information other than what the American media has reported.” He also implied that Rushdie had brought the attack on himself.
“Salman Rushdie has exposed himself to popular anger and fury by insulting the sanctity of Islam and crossing the red lines of over 1.5 billion Muslims and also the red lines of followers of all divine religions,” Kanaani said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while not directly blaming Tehran for the attack on Rushdie, did mention Iran in a statement early Monday, praising the writer’s efforts to support freedom of expression and religion.
“Iranian state institutions have incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media outlets have recently rejoiced in the attempt on his life,” Blinken said. “That is despicable.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul condemned the attack on Rushdie at a lecture on Sunday, saying that “a man with a knife can’t silence a man with a pen”.
Khomeini, who was in ill health in the last year of his life after the grueling, deadlocked Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s decimated the country’s economy, issued the 1989 fatwa on Rushdie. The Islamic edict came amid a violent uproar in the Muslim world of Romans, which some saw as blasphemous innuendos about the life of Prophet Muhammad.
While fatwas can be revised or revoked, Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who came to power after Khomeini, has never done so. As late as February 2017, Khamenei said: “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued it.”
Since 1979, Iran has targeted dissidents abroad. Tensions with the West — particularly the United States — have been rising 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 senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in 2020, further stoking those tensions.
Last week, the US indicted a member of the Guard in absentia for allegedly conspiring to assassinate former Trump adviser and Iran hawk John Bolton. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an aide are under 24-hour surveillance over alleged threats from Iran.
Meanwhile, US prosecutors say Iran tried to kidnap an Iranian opposition activist and writer living in New York in 2021. A man with an assault rifle was arrested near her home in recent days.
Other State Department denials concerned Tehran’s arms transfer to Yemen’s Houthi rebels amid that country’s long civil war. Independent experts, western states and UN experts have traced weapons components back to Iran.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.