Iran's new president was a member of the hardline Islamic student group that seized the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, but he opposed the takeover -- preferring instead to target the Soviet embassy, friends and former hostage-takers said on Thursday.
The former students who carried out the seizure and held the Americans for 444 days said Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had no role in taking the embassy or guarding the hostages.
In the turbulent early days of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad was more concerned with putting down leftists and communists at universities than striking at Americans, they said. During the long standoff, he was writing and speaking against leftist students, they said.
Six former US hostages who saw the president-elect in photos or on television said they believe Ahmadinejad was among the hostage-takers. One said he was interrogated by Ahmadinejad.
The White House said on Thursday that it was taking their statements seriously. US President George W. Bush said "many questions" were raised by the allegations.
The flap could add another layer of mistrust between the US and the former Tehran mayor, who was elected president last week with the backing of some of the most hardline members of the Islamic regime.
Leaders of the radical Islamic student group that carried out the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the embassy said Ahmadinejad was not among the hostage-takers.
"He was not part of us. He played no role in the seizure," Abbas Abdi, one of six leaders of the group, said.
Mohsen Mirdamadi, leader of the students who swept into the embassy, also said Ahmadinejad was not involved.
Abdi and Mirdamadi are now leading proponents of reform that would support democratic changes and are at loggerheads with Ahmadinejad.
Mohammad Ali Sayed Nejad, a friend of the president-elect, said he and Ahmadinejad unsuccessfully argued in favor of seizing the Soviet embassy at the time, and Ahmadinejad told colleagues in a recent meeting he opposed targeting the US mission because it would bring international condemnation down on Iran.
"I believed that if we did that, the world would swallow us," he said, according to his aide Meisan Rowhani.
Ahmadinejad dropped his opposition to the US embassy takeover after the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed support for it, but he never participated, Rowhani said.
Rasool Nafisi, a Middle East analyst who studies conservative groups in Iran, said Ahmadinejad may have frequented the embassy as one of the thousands of the students who camped out or were involved in protests there.
Former US hostage David Roeder and others said that after seeing Ahmadinejad on television, they were certain he was one of the hostage-takers.
"I can absolutely guarantee you he was not only one of the hostage-takers, he was present at my personal interrogation," Roeder said, though he added, "It's sort of more mannerisms."
William Daugherty and Don Sharer, two other hostages, said they believe Ahmadinejad is shown in photos taken a few days after the embassy was seized.
Abdi and several other former hostage-takers were shown the same photos and said they did not think the man was Ahmadinejad.
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