Friday, July 1, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday demanded that Iran answer questions about President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s role as a possible ringleader of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

“The Iranian government, with respect to this question, has an obligation to speak definitively,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

At issue are charges by several former American hostages who have identified Mr. Ahmadinejad as a leader of Iranians who held 52 U.S. diplomats and military personnel captive for 444 days.

President Bush, in an interview with several news agencies yesterday, said he was unable to confirm or refute charges by the former hostages against Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“But, obviously, his involvement raises many questions, and knowing how active people are at finding answers to questions, I’m confident they’ll be found,” Mr. Bush said.

Iran denied that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was elected president a week ago, was involved in the embassy seizure.

On Nov. 4, 1979, radical Iranian students swarmed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 U.S. diplomats and military officials hostage.

Several women and black Foreign Service officers were released within days, but 52 were held hostage until Jan. 20, 1981.

When Mr. Ahmadinejad, 48, the hard-line Islamist mayor of Tehran, first emerged as a serious candidate, an Associated Press photograph taken in 1979 of an Iranian walking with a blindfolded hostage began making the rounds on the Internet.

At least five former hostages have identified the unnamed student in the photograph as Mr. Ahmadinejad — Army Col. Charles Scott of Jonesboro, Ga.; Navy Capt. Donald Sharer of Bedford, Iowa; Kevin Hermening of Mosinee, Wis.; David Roeder and William J. Daugherty.

Some claim that the Iranian president oversaw interrogations and Capt. Sharer called him a “cruel individual.”

Other hostages, who said they were unable to recall Mr. Ahmadinejad with certainty, said nothing to cast doubt on those who had identified Iran’s president-elect with a terrorist past.

“The newly elected president certainly appears to be our old adversary, although I wouldn’t stake my future,” former hostage Joseph M. Hall told The Washington Times by e-mail yesterday.

Mr. Hall, of Arlington, was a U.S. Army military attache when he was taken captive with the others.

BBC correspondent John Simpson, who covered the embassy takeover, said yesterday he was “pretty sure” Mr. Ahmadinejad was a participant in the embassy takeover.

Iranian students, who were involved in the embassy seizure, yesterday backed claims by Iran’s government that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not involved.

Friends and associates from that time said Mr. Ahmadinejad was a student at Tehran’s Science and Technical University and was a member of the Office for Strengthening Unity — the group of radical students behind the embassy takeover.

But according to wire service reports from Iran, friends and associates also said Mr. Ahmadinejad was not part of the embassy operation.

Five other former hostages contacted by The Times yesterday said they were unable to identify the new president

“I don’t remember him. They all look alike,” said Col. Thomas Schaefer of Peoria, Ariz., former Air Force attache at the embassy.

But he and others said there was no reason to doubt the claims of other hostages who say they can remember Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“If the guys say he was there, I’ll buy it,” said Kathryn L. Koob, who was director of the Iran-American Society when she was taken hostage.

• Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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