Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly elected president of Iran, is a slight man with a clipped, graying brown beard and a quiet manner, who lives simply, dresses casually, and presents himself as a man of the people. As mayor of Tehran the religiously conservative Ahmadinejad distinguished himself by his lack of ostentation (he maintains a Web site called Mardomyar, "The people's friend") and by warring against endemic bribery and corruption, which is how he won the popularity that thrust him into national prominence. He also repealed the social reforms put in place by his predecessors, insisted that male city employees wear long-sleeved shirts and grow beards, and cracked down on women who violated Islamic dress codes.
Elected president only after "reform" politicians had been removed from the ballot by the country's ruling clerics, he is very much an unreconstructed product of Iran's quarter-century-old Islamist revolution. He was without a doubt a key player in the student movement that helped to overthrow the shah, to maneuver the mullahs into power, and later to conduct bloody purges of leftist and secular political groups opposed to creating Iran's strict mullahocracy. But when his name was linked recently to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, one of the revolution's central triumphal events, the president-elect took pains to distance himself, and the official government organs rallied behind him. Ahmadinejad's careful denial shows how much Iranian attitudes toward the takeover have changed.
The accusation was first made by Dave Roeder, Chuck Scott, Bill Daugherty, and several others of the fifty-two Americans taken hostage at the embassy, who claimed that they recognized the president-elect from still and moving pictures. Roeder was particularly adamant, saying that Ahmadinejad was among those who, in an effort to get him to talk, threatened to kidnap his disabled son in suburban Virginia and begin cutting off his fingers and toes. The hostages' memories are passionate, but they are also twenty-five years old, and hardly conclusive. A photograph of a bearded student resembling Ahmadinejad, escorting a bound, blindfolded hostage, has been widely reprinted, but it is impossible to tell if they are the same man.
What do we know about Ahmadinejad in those years? In 1979, as a student at the University of Science and Technology, he was one of the five founders, with Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, of Strengthen the Unity, an umbrella organization that was trying to unify the various revolutionary student factions. When Asgharzadeh proposed occupying the U.S. embassy, he was supported by two other founders—Mohsen Mirdamadi, who until recently was a member of the Majlis (Iran's congress), and Habibullah Bitaraf, now the country's minister of energy. Ahmadinejad and the fifth founder objected, arguing that the protest ought to be directed at the Soviet embassy, but they were outvoted.
Ahmadinejad has said that he did not support the embassy takeover until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini endorsed it. The endorsement came late on November 4, 1979, the day the embassy was seized. Because the action was planned and executed rapidly, Ahmadinejad's resistance lasted only about ten days. For him it was a matter of strategy, not principle: he didn't object to storming an embassy and taking hostages; he simply disagreed as to target. In the ensuing drama, which unfolded throughout 1980 and into 1981, he remained a leader of the umbrella organization, and although he has denied being directly involved in overrunning the American embassy grounds or in holding or questioning hostages, former hostage-takers I interviewed in Tehran consistently identified him as one of their leaders. He played a significant role in the purging of leftists and secular scholars at Tehran universities, when Strengthen the Unity helped identify campus heretics for prison and execution. He later joined the Revolutionary Guards, and reports, which he denies, have linked him to at least one of Tehran's overseas assassinations.