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Mahmoud the Bashful

For Iran's new president, running from the 1979 hostage-taking is like John Hancock's running from the Declaration. What's his problem?

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 He also repealed the social reforms put in place by his predecessors, insisted that male city employees wear long-sleeved shirts and grow beards, and cracked down on women who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.

In the past Ahmadinejad might have been expected to exaggerate his connection rather than to downplay it. In the early eighties the defiant Students Following the Imam's Line were the darlings of the revolution. Their uncontested takeover of the embassy came nine months after the shah had effectively been chased out of the country. It was the most important event in the mullahs' rise to power. Khomeini proclaimed it "a second revolution, greater than the first." Ibrahim Asgharzadeh has told me that during that period he and the other leaders of the takeover received fan mail, marriage proposals, and offers of high government office.

"We turned them all down," said Asgharzadeh, who was in his early twenties at the time. "We told them we were too young." But today many of Iran's top officials were leaders in the hostage crisis, during which they thumbed their noses at international diplomacy and effectively isolated their country from the world community.

The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former president and a losing candidate in the most recent election, endorsed the takeover and supervised negotiations for its eventual end. Khamenei frequently visited and spoke with the hostages. Mohsen Rezaee, a prominent member of the Revolutionary Guards and later its leader, is now the head of the Expediency Discernment Council, a powerful group that mediates disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, the country's ruling clerics. Nilufar Ebtekar, the notorious spokeswoman for Students Following the Imam's Line, who has since changed her first name to Massoumeh, now serves as a vice-president of Iran and as minister for the environment. Her husband, Muhammad Hashemi, another primary architect of the takeover, rose to become deputy minister for information, Iran's second most powerful intelligence official. The list goes on.

But although a role in the takeover is hardly a surprising item on the résumé of an Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad's prompt disavowal was a tacit acknowledgment that today the episode comes with distinct political liabilities, both foreign and domestic. Why would an association with the embassy takeover hurt Ahmadinejad? Because the hostage crisis resulted in such profound and lasting misfortune in Iran. Many Iranians (including Asgharzadeh) now regard it as an enormous blunder. Iranian conspiracy theorists on both the left and the right take solace in the preposterous notion that the whole thing was really planned by the CIA, which would make the students at best dupes, and at worst hirelings, of the Great Satan. In the eyes of the world, the takeover has damaged Iran's standing. It was a crime against international diplomacy, an age-old system that exists to resolve problems between nations peacefully. As Iran's new president, Ahmadinejad will be the most visible symbol of Iran in the world.

Like many officials newly thrust into power, Ahmadinejad is trying to begin by unifying the nation behind him and presenting a fresh face to the world. The guise of a hostage-taker ill suits either goal.