Ex-Hostages Finger Iran's President-Elect

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Shakes Hands with Khatami
Iranian president-elect, left, shakes hands with outgoing President Mohammad Khatami Wednesday. (Getty Images)
By William Branigin and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 30, 2005; 4:24 PM

The United States today challenged Iran to answer questions about the reported involvement of the nation's new president in the 1979 seizure of American hostages in Tehran after several former captives identified him as a ringleader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran who decisively won a presidential run-off election last week, was identified by at least half a dozen former hostages as one of the militants who took over the U.S. Embassy in November 1979 and held 52 Americans captive for 444 days. Several former hostages said Ahmadinejad was present during harsh interrogations.

However, former leaders of the takeover said in Iran today that Ahmadinejad was not part of their leadership group, and a spokesman for the president-elect denied that he played any role in the hostage-taking at all.

The controversy revived bitter memories of the embassy seizure and brought to the forefront a dispute that has remained unresolved for 26 years. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken over the hostage crisis and have never been restored.

President Bush, speaking to reporters about the upcoming G8 summit meeting in Scotland, said he has "no information" on Ahmadinejad's alleged role in the embassy takeover. "But obviously his involvement raises many questions," Bush said, adding that he was confident the answers would be found.

A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said the government will "look into this question seriously" to establish the facts. "We have not forgotten" that U.S. diplomats were taken hostage and held for more than a year, he said. "The Iranian government, with respect to this question, has an obligation to speak definitively concerning these questions that have been raised in public by these stories."

The issue is "not a matter just for the United States," McCormack said. "What is at stake here are questions about the ability of diplomats around the world . . . to freely do their work while posted abroad."

For the Bush administration, Iran has presented one of the most challenging aspects of foreign policy. During his first term, divisions within the administration left the White House paralyzed over whether to contain Iran or more actively promote so-called "regime change." The language today reflected a tougher line the administration now intends to take toward the Iranian government, U.S. officials said.

Among the former hostages convinced of Ahmadinejad's role in their ordeal is retired Col. David M. Roeder, 66, who served as deputy Air Force attache at the embassy in Tehran. In a telephone interview from North Carolina, he said Ahmadinejad was present at about a third of his roughly 45 interrogation sessions following the embassy takeover.

Roeder, who was among the most harshly interrogated of the hostages, said Ahmadinejad "seemed to be the next level above the interrogators and the interpreters and the guards." Roeder said the reason he remembers him so vividly is that he was present the first time that interrogators made a specific threat to kidnap his handicapped son in the United States and mutilate him "if I didn't start to cooperate." Roeder said his captors knew his son's school bus number and the time he left home to go to special education classes, apparently as a result of surveillance in the United States.

"That was scary," he said.

Kevin Hermening, a Marine Guard at the embassy and the youngest of the hostages, said of the Iranian president-elect, "It sure seems to me that he was the person doing the interrogations that first day of the captivity. When I looked at his photograph during the election run-off, it looked like him."

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