Iran denies involvement but justifies Salman Rushdie attack

A man uses a microphone to speak to a crowd.
British author Salman Rushdie speaks at the Volkstheater in Vienna, Austria.
Herbert Neubauer | APA/AFP via Getty Images 2019

Updated: 11:27 a.m. | Posted: 4:27 a.m.

An Iranian official Monday denied Tehran was involved in the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie, though he sought to justify the attack in the Islamic Republic's first public comments on the bloodshed.

The remarks by Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, came three days after Rushdie was wounded in New York state. The writer has been taken off a ventilator and is “on the road to recovery,” according to his agent.

Rushdie, 75, has faced death threats for more than 30 years over his novel “The Satanic Verses," whose depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was seen by some Muslims as blasphemous.

In 1989, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding the author's death, and while Iran has not focused on Rushdie in recent years, the decree still stands.

Also, a semiofficial Iranian foundation had posted a bounty of over $3 million for the killing of the author. It has not commented on the attack.

“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.

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“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.”

Iran has denied carrying out other operations abroad against dissidents in the years since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, though prosecutors and Western governments have attributed such attacks to Tehran.

Rushdie was attacked Friday as he was about to give a lecture in western New York. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, according to his agent, Andrew Wylie. Rushdie is likely to lose the eye, Wylie said.

His alleged assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault.

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

“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 U.S. 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 has bombarded Hezbollah positions near there in the past.

Village records show Matar holds Lebanese citizenship and is a Shiite, an official there said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said Matar’s father lives there but has been in seclusion since the attack.

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, denounced Iran in a statement Monday praising the writer's support for 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.”

While fatwas can be revoked, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over after Khomeini's death, has never done so. As recently as 2017, Khamenei said: “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”

Tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the U.S., have spiked since then-President Donald Trump 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, heightening those tensions.

Last week, the U.S. charged a Guard member in absentia with 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.

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