TEHRAN, Iran – A top Iranian former secret agent said Saturday the hostage-taker in a 1979 photograph that has come under intense scrutiny is not President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) but a former militant who committed suicide in jail.
Saeed Hajjarian, a top adviser to outgoing President Mohammad Khatami (search), also denied an Austrian newspaper report and claims by Iranian dissidents that Ahmadinejad had a role in the 1989 slaying of an Iranian opposition Kurdish leader and two associates in Vienna.
Ahmadinejad has been accused of taking American hostages when students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (search) 26 years ago. Six former hostages who saw the president-elect in photos or on television said they believe Ahmadinejad was among the captors who held them for 444 days and one said he was interrogated by him. The White House said it was taking their statements seriously.
"I'm opposed to Ahmadinejad's policies and thinking but he was not involved in the hostage drama nor in the assassination of an Iranian opposition Kurdish leader in Vienna," Hajjarian told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Ahmadinejad denied on Friday that he was a hostage-taker. "It is not true," he said. "It is only rumors."
International media have compared photos of Ahmadinejad, who won a presidential runoff election last week, with a black-and-white picture of one of the hostage-takers, a young man with a thin, bearded face and dark hair that sweeps across his forehead.
But Hajjarian identified the man in the photo as Taqi Mohammadi.
"This man is Taqi Mohammadi, a militant who later turned into a dissident and committed suicide in jail," he said, pointing to the 1979 photo. Mohammadi was arrested on charges of involvement in the 1981 bombing in Tehran that killed the country's president and prime minister
Former Iranian president Abholhassan Bani-Sadr, who lives in exile outside Paris, told The Associated Press on Friday that Ahmadinejad "wasn't among the decision-makers but he was among those inside the Embassy."
Bani-Sadr said Ahmadinejad was responsible for briefing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the hostage situation.
"One of his roles ... was to inform Mr. Khomeini of what was happening at the Embassy," Bani-Sadr said in a telephone interview.
Hajjarian denied those allegations as well.
Bani-Sadr said the new Iranian president was initially opposed to the hostage-taking but, according to his information, changed his mind once Khomeini gave his agreement.
Hajjarian said Ahmadinejad believed the then-Soviet Embassy, not the U.S. Embassy, should have been taken.
"Ahmadinejad believed that the great Satan is the Soviet Union and that America was the smaller Satan," he said.
For Iranians, fervor over the 1979 Embassy takeover — a central event in their stormy Islamic Revolution — has faded. In fact, many former hostage-takers have entered politics, and some of the organizers of the siege are now leading advocates of democratic reform and closer ties with the United States.
Hajjarian, considered the brains behind Khatami's democratic reforms program, is a former top official in the Intelligence Ministry, or the secret service. Both supporters and opponents describe him as the "walking memory" of Iran's recent history because of his access to classified information and secrets within Iran's ruling Islamic establishment.
Hajjarian is one of many reformers who is at loggerheads with the hard-line Ahmadinejad. He was shot by a hard-line vigilante in 2000 and is paralyzed and cannot speak fluently.
In Austria, an exiled Iranian dissident on Saturday accused Ahmadinejad of playing a key role in the 1989 execution-style slayings of a Kurdish opposition leader and two associates in Vienna.
The Austrian newspaper Der Standard quoted a top official with Austria's Green Party Peter Pilz as saying authorities have "very convincing" evidence linking Ahmadinejad to the 1989 slaying of Kurdish politician Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou and two associates by providing weapons to the Iranian commandos who shot them.
Ghassemlou was secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and was in Vienna for secret talks with envoys from the Tehran regime.
Pilz could not be reached for comment Saturday, and calls to Austria's Interior Ministry and the nation's federal counterterrorism agency went unanswered.
Exiled Iranian dissident Alireza Jafarzadeh, who runs Strategic Policy Consulting, a Washington-based think tank focusing on Iran and Iraq, said Ahmadinejad was a Revolutionary Guard commander who supplied the weapons used to kill the three on July 13, 1989 in Vienna. Jafarzadeh said his assessment was based on Iranian government sources "who have provided accurate information in the past."
Jafarzadeh is a former U.S. representative for the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The council is the political arm of the Mujahedeen Khalq, a group that Washington and the European Union list as a terrorist organization.
Neither Ahmadinejad nor his aides could be reached Saturday for comment on the allegations surrounding the Vienna killings.