Thursday, June 30, 2005

Americans held in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran said yesterday they clearly recall Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad playing a central role in the takeover, interrogating captives and demanding harsher treatment for the hostages.

“As soon as I saw his picture in the paper, I knew that was the bastard,” said retired Army Col. Charles Scott, 73, a former hostage who lives in Jonesboro, Ga.

“He was one of the top two or three leaders,” Col. Scott said in a telephone interview. “The new president of Iran is a terrorist.”

The new president’s hard-line political views and his background as a student radical in the Iranian Revolution are well known.

But recollections of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s direct and personal role in the embassy drama promises to complicate the already rocky relations between Iran’s new president and the Bush administration.

Donald Sharer, a retired Navy captain who was for a time a cellmate of Col. Scott at the Evin prison in northern Tehran, remembered Mr. Ahmadinejad as “a hard-liner, a cruel individual.”

“I know he was an interrogator,” said Capt. Sharer, now 64 and living in Bedford, Iowa. He said he was personally questioned by Mr. Ahmadinejad on one occasion but does not recall the subject of the interrogation.

Col. Scott recalled an incident when Mr. Ahmadinejad berated a friendly Iranian guard who had allowed the two Americans to visit another U.S. hostage in a neighboring cell. Col. Scott, who understands Farsi, said Mr. Ahmadinejad told the guard, “You shouldn’t let these pigs out of their cells.”

Col. Scott said he responded by making a rude gesture to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The man about to become Iran’s sixth president since the revolution became “red-faced” and stormed out of the cell.

U.S. officials have condemned the voting procedures that led to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s upset in a runoff win over moderate cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani on June 25.

Iran’s hard-line Islamic rulers, who have long and close ties to the incoming president, barred all but a handful of the 1,000 candidates who sought to run in the election.

It has long been known that Mr. Ahmadinejad, then a 23-year-old engineering student at Tehran’s Elm-o Sanaat University, played a critical role in planning the embassy takeover in November 1979.

An ardent supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mr. Ahmadinejad was a founding member of the Office for Strengthening Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries. The OSU, as it became known, was closely linked to Ayatollah Khomeini.

The OSU organized the storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran. Mr. Ahmadinejad backed the decision and reportedly proposed the student radicals should storm the Soviet Union’s embassy as well.

Mo Jazayeri, executive editor of the London-based Iran Focus, a news service that features reporting critical of Iran’s Islamic regime, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Ahmadinejad “played an important role as the main security chief” inside the embassy compound.

Iran Focus yesterday circulated a November 1979 Associated Press photo that it claimed showed a young Mr. Ahmadinejad beside a blindfolded American hostage. But neither the Associated Press nor The Washington Times could verify that the figure in the photo was the future Iranian leader.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s office has denied he helped storm the embassy and said the man in the photo is not the president-elect. But the office did not comment on whether Mr. Ahmadinejad had other duties during the 444-day hostage ordeal.

Another former hostage, Kevin Hermening of Mosinee, Wis., said he came into contact with Mr. Ahmadinejad right after the takeover.

“He was involved in interrogating me the day we were taken captive,” recalled Mr. Hermening, who, at 20, was the youngest hostage.

Mr. Hermening, a Marine security guard at the Tehran embassy, said his interrogators were seeking the combinations for “safes and other things that were locked.”

“There is absolutely no reason the United States should be trying to normalize relations with a man who seems intent on trying to force-feed the world with state-sponsored terrorism,” Mr. Hermening said.

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