Global Viewpoint: When Saddam Hussein appeals for a holy war of Islam against the West, does it resonate in Tehran or do you regard it with cynicism?

Ali Akbar Velayati: The question of sincerity is very important. The Moslems in our country and elsewhere will only follow Islamic spiritual leaders whose own past confirms their convictions and Islamic orientation.As a secular Baathist, Saddam Hussein had a different attitude in the past. He didn't talk about Islamic values and the holy war (before the invasion of Kuwait). He is not an Islamic spiritual leader, he is the president of an Islamic country.

GV: So his appeal for a holy war falls on deaf ears?

Velayati: The faithful are waiting for an invitation that will extend to them from an Islamic spiritual leader.

GV: Now that Iran has joined the embargo against Iraq, it has ended a long period of international isolation and rejoined the community of nations. Do you think it is time now to further extend mending the relationship with the West by revoking the death sentence against Salman Rushdie?

Velayati: That is quite different. When somebody insults the main Islamic values and Islamic principles, you cannot ignore it.

If you look at the history of the Salman Rushdie question, you will find that all Islamic countries endorsed what Imam Khomeini said. A few months after the issuing of the verdict against Salman Rushdie, that verdict was endorsed unanimously by all 46 members of the Islamic Conference which met in Riyad. That included Turkey.

GV: Including the condemnation to death?

Velayati: Everything, yes. It showed that this (verdict) is based on Islamic values.

GV: So you are saying that, as of this moment, the Iranian government position is the same on Salman Rushdie as it was at the time the verdict was issued.

Velayati: There has been no change.

GV: On behalf of the European Community, the foreign minister of Italy, Gianni de Michelis, has proposed a way to resolve the Salman Rushdie affair with an exchange of statements. The EC would say they respect all religions, including Islam, and in return, Iran would make some kind of statement pledging respect for the established international code of conduct, which implicit

ly rules out inciting believers to commit murder. Do you think this kind of approach may lead to a resolution of the issue?

Velayati: When you (as a citizen of the United States) express your views about values, it doesn't mean that you are going to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. For example, when you talk about human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and elsewhere, does it mean that you want to intervene in the internal affairs of others?

GV: No.

Velayati: So, this is the value that you support. Our situation is the same when we say that nobody has the right to insult Islamic values and also Christian values.

If anybody insults Jesus, the verdict is the same on the basis of Islamic values. Jesus and Moses are also prophets of Islam. These are our values. We support them very strongly. So the question of intervention in internal affairs is another thing.

GV: But the question is not about the internal affairs of Iran. Perhaps that would be the case if Salman Rushdie went to Iran. The issue concerns a verdict to be followed by all believers, irrespective of national boundaries, to follow up this death threat against Rushdie.

As Iran joins the international order again, as signified by joining the embargo against Iraq, it must resolve this issue in some way. Or, are you saying that it cannot be resolved as long as Salman Rushdie lives?

Velayati: We abide by international law. At the same time we are abiding by Islamic values. We think there is no contradiction between these two issues. So, as I said, the verdict is still valid, and nobody can say it is not valid because it is based on Islamic principles.

GV: Well, the verdict may not seem in contradiction with the international order to you, but it does to most of the other foreign ministers sitting over at the U.N. because inciting murder across boundaries is something which is not accepted.

Velayati: It is up to them to decide about their policy. We are very frank and we have expressed our views very clearly. There is no compromise.

GV: So, there is no move afoot to resolve the Rushdie question. There is no compromise.

Velayati: This is not the issue for compromise.

GV: Despite your statement at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly that Iran will keep the embargo against Iraq, rumors persist that there is a secret deal to trade Iraqi oil for Iranian food. Can you categorically deny that any deal exists?

Velayati: Yes. I will say, categorically, there is no deal. We are very carefully observing the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. While most Arab countries kept silent for almost two days after the invasion of Kuwait, we condemned the invasion and Iraqi occupation categorically within 18 hours after it transpired.

The U.N. sanctions will not be violated from our side of the border. That is our decision and we are determined to make it effective.

GV: When Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani met with Syrian President Hafez Al Assad on Tuesday (Sept. 25), they said they had a common position on what to do if war breaks out or if Israel intervenes. What is that common position?

Velayati: These are two different things.

If war breaks out, it is our policy not to intervene and join in violent conflict. But if Israel intervenes, it means they have attacked the Islamic world. We cannot tolerate any Islamic territory being attacked by Israel.

GV: In your view, would the whole Islamic world, including the gulf states and Egypt, regard Israeli involvement in the same way and change their present alliance with the West against Iraq?

Velayati: Israel's involvement would change everything everywhere. If it is not the position of some Islamic governments, I can tell you frankly that it is the position of all Moslems.

GV: Iran has condemned the Iraqi aggression and demanded a pullout from Kuwait, but it has also condemned the presence of U.S. and Western military forces in the gulf.

But can Saddam Hussein be forced to withdraw without the massive Western military presence?

Velayati: We are hoping for a regional solution because the presence of the U.S. and other Western forces cannot be justified from the standpoint of Islamic values. What is important is that the Western military forces leave immediately after the ending of the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The Moslem faithful will not accept the kind of "regional alliance" modeled on NATO which U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed several weeks ago. Since he has been quiet on this matter most recently, we hope he has dropped the idea and become sensitive to the hostility our region has displayed toward a foreign presence for centuries.

GV: So, do you think Western forces should leave now?

Velayati: If we are talking about principles, the very invitation extended to Western countries to come to the Persian Gulf was a mistake. The continuing military buildup compounds that mistake.

The West should start thinking strategically about the region. Let the countries of the region do the job themselves. Three years ago, the West was determined to help Saddam Hussein by equipping him with everything he wanted, including the chemical weapons which he used against us.

At that time, nobody cared. Now we are all trapped by this man with weapons of mass destruction at his disposal.

We said at the time that the West should not interfere in the region and make matters worse. And we say it again now. Let us Moslems handle it. The permanent presence of foreigners is very dangerous.

GV: Yet, these very Western forces you condemn may achieve what Iran couldn't in eight years of bloody war - incapacitate Saddam Hussein as a threat.

The secret "Irangate" dealings yielded only a few spare parts for the war effort against Iraq. Now you're not talking nuts and bolts, but troop divisions, fighter squadrons and aircraft carriers.

Velayati: I think this situation will put the United States in a very difficult situation. They are compounding their own mistake, supported by the Soviet Union and the rest of the West. Moslems are very determined to defend their own faith and their own interests.

GV: Jordan's King Hussein has said the presence of Western forces in Saudi Arabia is a desecration of the holy sites of Islam.

In only eight months the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca will take place. Given what you've said, isn't this situation asking for a conflagration?

Velayati: That is why I must say frankly that the prolongation of this process and this deadlock is very dangerous. Day by day the situation grows more complex. The most important parameter entering the picture as the Haj approaches will be the generalized protest of faithful Moslems against the presence of foreigners in the Holy Land.

The ordinary people are against this. It is not a matter of politics, but of faith. After all, no foreigners are allowed in the holy places where, during the Haj, you cannot even kill a mosquito and scratch your own body too vigorously.

Armed foreigners in the land of the Holy Place at that time is unimaginable.

GV: If Salman Rushdie's words were an insult to Islam, I imagine armed foreigners in the land of holy sites must be perceived as an insult of a far greater order.

Velayati: That is right, and that is very important to understand. As you can see now, there are some Islamic groups in the world who are very angry at what is going on in the Persian Gulf.

1990, New Perspectives Quarterly

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