WASHINGTON — The death threats against novelist Salman Rushdie are generally interpreted in Washington as a sign that the Ayatollah Khomeini is still in charge and that the radicals in Iran's leadership have found a new means to inflame him. ``It was a brilliant stroke by those who brought this issue to him,'' sums up one ranking United States official, ``even if it very poorly serves Iran.'' By tapping Khomeini's passion for protecting the purity of Islam no matter what the costs, the hard-line revolutionaries have found a means to increase their influence in Tehran, he says.
At a minimum, adds a senior official, it reinforces the conclusion that there will be no movement soon on the issue of American hostages in Lebanon or on US-Iranian relations.
The question still being debated here is how much this has tilted the power balance inside Iran.
A top European terrorism specialist says the Rushdie incident marks a change in strategy for keeping the revolution alive. Rather than relying on traditional modes of terrorism - hijackings, bombings, kidnapings - to strike out at the West, Tehran's radicals have won the Ayatollah's support for striking out in very public, media-focused ways.
This specialist's sources say more such ``public terrorism'' will follow. This type of public action could be attractive to the Ayatollah, say US officials, as a means of reviving the fervor of a revolution badly demoralized by its loss to Iraq and the difficult postwar problems Iran faces.