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.