U.S. questions Iranian president's role in '79 embassy hostage-taking

Several Americans say Ahmadinejad one of those who held them captive

July 01, 2005|By Tyler Marshall and Paul Richter | Tyler Marshall and Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration demanded yesterday that the Iranian government clarify the role of President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the prolonged hostage crisis that followed.

The administration also pledged to conduct its own investigation into Ahmadinejad's past after several of the 52 Americans held hostage in the embassy said in tough, unequivocal statements that they had recognized the next Iranian leader as one of their captors.

However, at least two other former hostages said they were unable to recall the president-elect as a participant in their ordeal.

"The Iranian government ... has an obligation to speak definitively concerning these questions that have been raised in public," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

Both McCormack and White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the United States would launch its own efforts to determine Ahmadinejad's precise role in the crisis.

"I think the news reports and statements from several former American hostages raise many questions about his past," McClellan told reporters. "We take them very seriously and we are looking into them to better understand the facts."

The 444-day ordeal of the Americans held captive in the Tehran embassy marked one of the most searing and emotional collective public experiences in recent American history, an incident that still weighs heavily on the Iranian-American relationship.

The two countries have had no formal diplomatic ties since the takeover despite the passing of more than a quarter-century. It was not clear how the new allegations might affect the struggle within the Bush administration over how to deal with Tehran.

Questions about Ahmadinejad's role in the embassy takeover caught the public eye this week with the release of photographs taken during the hostage crisis that show someone of similar appearance to Ahmadinejad among the captors. In an Associated Press dispatch Wednesday, five former hostages said they were certain the person in question was Ahmadinejad; two, William J. Daugherty and Don A. Sharer, repeated those contentions today in television interviews.

Reached by The Los Angeles Times later today at his home in Savannah, Ga., Daughtery said he was "absolutely" sure that Ahmadinejad was among the group of older, more experienced Iranians who supervised the detention of the hostages in the first days after the embassy takeover.

In those first days, the hostage-takers brought various dignitaries to observe the hostages, including the papal nuncio and representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

"They were escorted by people who were obviously the leaders and this guy was among them," Daughtery said. "His hatred came through. You could tell from his whole manner that he was more or less repulsed by the fact that we were alive."

However, two other former hostages reached by The Times today said they were not able to place Ahmadinejad in the embassy.

"I saw the picture, and I don't remember him, but they didn't actually introduce themselves to me," said John Limbert, a former hostage who now heads the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, which represents about 26,000 active and retired U.S. diplomats. "I heard what my colleagues said. They certainly seem certain and I respect their opinion, but I just don't remember that face. I can't look at him and say, `I saw him there.' "

It is widely known that Ahmadinejad belonged to a pro-regime student group called the Office to Foster Unity that was initially formed to consolidate the revolution's following among skeptical university students and later plotted the embassy's seizure in November 1979.

In Tehran, two of Iran's most prominent former hostage-takers said today that Ahmadinejad was definitely not among the students who stormed the U.S. Embassy. They said, however, that the president-elect had attended meetings at which students plotted the takeover.

"He was only there in the first couple of planning sessions," said Elaheh Mojarradi, a former hostage-taker. "Not the actual event."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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