International Herald Tribune: A new cloud appeared over the U.S. relationship with Iran on Thursday as President George W. Bush said a host of questions had been raised by allegations by several former American hostages that the president-elect of Iran was among their captors after radicals seized the American Embassy in 1979.
International Herald Tribune
1 July 2005
By Brian Knowlton
WASHINGTON – A new cloud appeared over the U.S. relationship with Iran on Thursday as President George W. Bush said a host of questions had been raised by allegations by several former American hostages that the president-elect of Iran was among their captors after radicals seized the American Embassy in 1979.
The embassy crisis was a gripping and traumatic period for Americans, and the source of lasting strains with Tehran, and at least two of the Iranians involved in the takeover denied that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had taken part. But the White House said the questions raised were too serious to dismiss.
Speaking to foreign reporters before his trip to Scotland next week for the Group of Eight meeting, Bush said he had no information on the reports about Ahmadinejad, who was elected last Friday and who expressed decided coolness to Washington, saying that Iran had “no significant need” for the United States.
“Obviously,” Bush said, “his involvement raises many questions.”
If involvement by Ahmadinejad were confirmed, it would further complicate Iranian relations with the United States, which has been supporting efforts by European countries to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program in return for economic incentives.
It would surely increase domestic pressure from Bush’s conservative base to keep Iran, part of what the president once called the “axis of evil,” at arm’s length.
Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor, would have been in his early 20s during the hostage-taking, which overshadowed the last year of the Carter presidency and ended only the day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. He was a follower of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and by some reports was part of the group that planned the seizure.
But at least two of the Iranians involved in the embassy episode deny that he took part, Reuters reported from the Iranian capital.
“Ahmadinejad was not among those who occupied the American Embassy after the revolution,” said Abbas Abdi, who helped to orchestrate the raid nine months after the Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, Reuters reported.
Another leader of the seizure, Mohsen Mirdamadi, similarly rejected the reports.
Some of the militants who took over the embassy, holding 52 Americans for 444 days, have gone into politics, or now serve in government jobs. Others are now opponents of the governing Shiite leadership.
At the White House, the spokesman said that the questions could not be ignored. “I think the news reports and statements from several former American hostages raise many questions about his past,” said the spokesman, Scott McClellan. “We take them very seriously and we are looking into them to better understand the facts.”
The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that “we as a government are working to establish the facts surrounding this story.”
At least four former hostages said they had little doubt that the two were the same. Some of them said they remembered the man as having been in a supervisory capacity.
Donald Sharer, of Bedford, Indiana, said on NBC television that he was virtually certain Ahmadinejad was the same man. He said he had been reading the Indianapolis Star recently and saw a recent picture of the president-elect.
“All of a sudden, up pops the devil, right in front of me,” he said.
Sharer said he remembered, while being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, having the man he believes now to be Ahmadinejad come in and berate the prisoners as “pigs and dogs.” This was done in a way that left him fearing for his life. “You tend not to forget people that put your life in threat,” he said.
On a scale of 1 to 10, he told the interviewer, he would rate his certainty level at 9.9.
Another former hostage, William Daugherty, said on CNN, “I saw his picture in The Washington Post Saturday morning, and recognized it immediately.” While at least one other former hostage, Thomas Schaefer, a retired air force colonel, said he could not confidently place Ahmadinejad, Daugherty said the face was one he would never forget.
“When your country is being humiliated and being embarrassed, the individuals that do that really stick in your mind,” he said. “You don’t forget people who do things like that to you and your family and your country.” In a news photo from 1979 showing radicals escorting a blindfolded American hostage, one man does appear similar to Ahmadinejad. Both have heads that seem unusually broad at the top, narrowing to pointed, bearded chins. Both have distinctive flops of dark hair over the brow.
The Washington Times, a conservative daily that bannered the story across its front page Thursday, quoted another former hostage, Charles Scott, as reacting much like Sharer and Daugherty.
“As soon as I saw his picture in the paper, I knew that was the bastard,” Scott, 73, a retired army colonel in Jonesboro, Georgia, told the newspaper.
“He was one of the top two or three leaders. The new president of Iran is a terrorist.” And Kevin Hermening of Mosinee, Wisconsin, who was a 20-year-old marine guard when the embassy was seized, said that Ahmadinejad was one of his interrogators the day of the takeover.
The United States has said relatively little about Ahmadinejad, whose election came as a surprise. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, while saying that he knew little about the new president, then dismissed him as “no friend of democracy.”
Sharer said he supposed the Iranians were probably “trying to cover their tracks.”
“All I can say,” he added, “is I remember the fellow being very cruel-like, stern, a very narrow, beady-eyed character.”