WASHINGTON – The White House said Thursday it was investigating whether Iran's new president played a role in seizing the American Embassy and holding 52 U.S. captives a quarter century ago. President Bush said the allegation by former hostages "raises many questions."
The administration was reviewing its files on Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) after the hostage comments were brought to light by The Associated Press.
"I have no information, but obviously his involvement raises many questions," Bush said in an interview with foreign reporters. The administration said it would have to deal with Ahmadinejad regardless of his past.
Ahmadinejad has been the ultraconservative mayor of Tehran and, according to his associates, was a member of the radical student group that planned the embassy takeover in 1979. But his associates say he opposed the plan and did not take part in holding hostages because he preferred instead to target the Soviet Embassy.
Six former hostages told AP they recognized Ahmadinejad from television coverage and photos as one of their captors during the 444-day ordeal. It was a painful, frustrating time for the United States and weakened then-President Carter, contributing to his re-election loss to Ronald Reagan.
William A. Gallegos (search), who lives in suburban Denver, wrote in an e-mail concerning Ahmadinejad: "I remember him being one of the leaders at the beginning of the takeover. He was also present during my interrogations. He did not take part, but was present in the background and he always seemed to be in charge of the guards who watched over us."
It was unclear whether the administration had explored previously whether Ahmadinejad was involved in the hostage episode. National security adviser Stephen Hadley (search) said the United States has followed his career.
"Obviously, one of the things you do when you get a report like this is look back and see what you have in the files, and that's the process that's going on now," Hadley said.
Militant students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and held the U.S. hostages in reprisal for Washington's refusal to surrender ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (search) for trial. The shah had fled Iran earlier that year after he was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad resembles a thin, bearded man pictured on Nov. 9, 1979, holding the arm of a blindfolded hostage and displaying him to the crowd outside the embassy, although some who know Ahmadinejad say the man is too tall to be the incoming president.
Hadley said the White House was looking into the photographs and had not reached any conclusions.
"They are allegations at the present time," he said. "We need to get the facts."
Hadley stressed that the United States would have to deal with Ahmadinejad, even if the administration did not approve of the way he was elected.
Bush denounced the election earlier this month, saying it was designed to maintain power in the hands of an unelected few who denied ballot access to more than 1,000 people who wanted to run.
Bush suggested that questions about Ahmadinejad's role in the hostage situation were not his primary concern. Instead, he said, he wanted to ensure that Britain, France and Germany, who have been negotiating with Iran to stop its alleged nuclear ambitions, make clear to Ahmadinejad that a nuclear-armed Iran will not be tolerated.
"We've got a new man who's assumed power and he must hear a focused message," the president said. "That's where my attention is focused right now."
Members of Ahmadinejad's office refused to look at the photos or comment on the allegations. Guards prevented AP from entering Ahmadinejad's office to present the photos.
"The president-elect will have four years ahead with a lot of work that needs to be done. We won't enter a media game," Kaveh Eshtehardi, an aide to the president-elect said when asked to look at the pictures. "We won't heed such allegations."
Ahmadinejad was a member of the Office of Strengthening Unity, the student organization that planned the embassy takeover, but he was opposed to taking the U.S. Embassy, several of his associates said. Ahmadinejad was more concerned with putting down leftists and communists at universities than striking at Americans, they said.
Ahmadinejad was said to have told colleagues in a recent meeting that he had opposed targeting the American Embassy because it would bring international condemnation on Iran.
"I believed that if we did that, the world would swallow us," he said, according to aide Meisan Rowhani, who was at the meeting.
Abbas Abdi, the leader of the hostage-takers, said Ahmadinejad did not take part in the seizure. Abdi has since become a leading supporter of reform in Iran and sharply opposed Ahmadinejad in the election.
"He was not part of us," Abdi said.
Some former hostages said they couldn't be sure about their captors. Alan Golancinski (search), one of the former hostages who is retired and now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., said he couldn't positively identify Ahmadinejad
"When I was interrogated, I was blindfolded and shackled," he said.