THE crisis over Salman Rushdie's book ``The Satanic Verses'' has dimmed hopes for an early release of Western hostages in Lebanon. Iranian and Syrian sources in Beirut believe that one of nine American hostages - probably one of the three college professors held by the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine (IJLP) - was to have been released soon.
The release now seems doubtful. The IJLP issued a statement on Feb. 23 creating the first public link between the Rushdie affair and the Beirut hostages. Although it did not specifically threaten the captives, the statement was seen as implying that any releases would be delayed.
``We have worked hard to find a peaceful solution to the hostage question, to show good intentions at a time of international overtures on the issue,'' the statement said. ``But now it seems that imperialism and Zionism want Muslims to renounce their beliefs....''
The release of any of the three British hostages appears to be ruled out for the time being, well-placed sources believe. Mr. Rushdie is a British citizen. Iran's parliament is expected to vote today to break relations with Britain.
One well-placed Shiite source believed that British hostage Terry Waite, the Anglican Church envoy, was to have been freed in February. ``I am sure that is off now,'' he says.
British officials have expressed concern about the implications of the Rushdie affair for the three British hostages, as well as for businessman Roger Cooper who, accused of spying, has been held in Iran for more than three years.
There were strong reports in January that Belfast-born teacher Brian Keenan - who holds both Irish and British passports - was about to be freed.
But several sources later said that, although the release had been approved by Iran, it was vetoed by Tehran's Syrian allies because the British government would not give advance pledges of willingness to restore relations with Damascus.
London broke ties with Syria in 1986, alleging Syrian involvement in an attempt to smuggle a bomb on board an Israeli airliner at Heathrow Airport.