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Was Ahmadinejad At ’79 US Embassy Take-Over?

From Russia’s Kommersant:

Him or Not Him?

Ever since Mahmoud Amadinejad was elected president of Iran, people have been arguing over whether he took part in the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. No proof of his participation in what America considers an act of terrorism has yet come to light. But among photographs taken by a Soviet citizen who was near the embassy on the day it was stormed, Evgeny Zhirnov, a columnist for Vlast magazine, has discovered a face that looks very much like Mr. Ahmadinejad’s.

Good photographs very rarely turn up of their own accord. Usually they have to be searched for painstakingly in archive drawers and folders or in the piles of albums and rolls of film that illustrate the stages of some powerful person’s long life. As such, when exactly the photograph that everyone has looking for suddenly appears, and not after an arduous screening of layers of black-and-white snapshots but as part of a whole collection, it is an enormous stroke of luck. Especially if the photographs are exclusives that have been handed over completely and to any purpose and that have never been published anywhere before.

That kind of luck was evident in the discovery of several rolls of film that were taken by a Soviet citizen in Tehran after the Islamic revolution of 1979. There are no pictures of Iran from that period in the TASS and APN archives, so the photographs in question had to have been taken by an officially unaccredited photographer. Judging by the images, his movement around the city must have been fairly unrestricted: an unusual circumstance for an ordinary Soviet citizen of that time, leading to conjectures that he was possibly working in contact with the KGB or the GRU. Of course, however, exceptions to the rules are not unheard-of.

There is another possibility: it is not overly difficult to fake rolls of film. But under close inspection it has turned out that the 36-mm film bears the "Svema" brand stamp and a production date of 1979. Moreover, it looks exactly like rolls of film that were carefully preserved for more than a quarter of a century ought to, neither better nor worse. A search of the photograph archives of the international AP and AFP agencies showed that they contain photographs with similar subjects – the same street protests, the same slogans, the same transparencies recording the names of neighborhoods and stores and words in support of the politics of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The photographs in the archives of the AP and the AFP helped to narrow down the location of the action captured on one of the rolls of film to alongside the walls of the American embassy in Tehran when it was being seized by radical Iranian students on November 4, 1979. Evil rumor has long maintained that units from the Iranian special forces played a leading role in the storming of the embassy and that the students were just pawns used to paint the operation as unofficial. Whatever the case may be, we talked to people who served in Tehran and know the city well, and they said that the Soviet photographer appears to have walked along the southern wall of the American embassy from west to east before turning around and retracing his steps, apparently returning to the Soviet embassy.

All that remained was the carefully scrutinize the film. The majority of the pictures were an original report on a street demonstration in honor of the seizure of the "den of the enemy." But among the many photographs filled with crowds of people, one stood out. Taken from a respectable distance and from behind a barrier, it shows a young man with an automatic submachine gun – presumably one of the participants in the storming of the embassy. Not just anyone from the crowd, however: his submachine gun has a factory casing, as opposed to the more common wood-paneled submachine guns brandished by the students in the other pictures. The young man is standing, leaning tiredly against the wall of the embassy. And when the picture is enlarged, his face comes to closely resemble that of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

You’re Not a Terrorist if You’re Not Identified as One

American news channels began to talk about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s purported participation in the storming of the embassy immediately after his election as president in late June 2005. The first to discuss it publicly, however, were members of the Iranian opposition who were based in Iraq. Their internet site, Iran Focus, returned to the topic numerous topics. On June 29, for example, the site published a comment saying, "Iran Focus has learnt that the photograph of Iran’s newly-elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, holding the arm of a blindfolded American hostage on the premises of the United States embassy in Tehran was taken by an Associated Press photographer in November 1979.

Prior to the first round of the presidential elections on June 17, Iran Focus was the first news service to reveal Ahmadinejad’s role in the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The identity of Ahmadinejad in the photograph was revealed to Iran Focus by a source in Tehran, whose identity could not be revealed for fear of persecution.

Soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ahmadinejad, who was studying in Tehran’s University of Science and Technology, became a member of the central council of the Office for Strengthening the Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries, the main pro-Khomeini student body. The OSU played a central role in the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Members of the OSU central council, who included Ahmadinejad as well as Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Mohsen Kadivar, Hashem Aghajari, and Abbas Abdi, were regularly received by Khomeini himself.

Former OSU officials involved in the takeover of the U.S. embassy said Ahmadinejad was in charge of security during the occupation, a key role that put him in direct contact with the nascent security organizations of the clerical regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, which he later joined.

After the 444-day occupation of the U.S. embassy, Ahmadinejad joined the special forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office, based in Evin Prison. The “Revolutionary Prosecutor” was Assadollah Lajevardi, who earned the nickname the Butcher of Evin after the execution of thousands of political dissidents in the 1980s.

Defectors from the clerical regime’s security forces have revealed that Ahmadinejad led the firing squads that carried out many of the executions. He personally fired the coup de grace shots into the heads of prisoners after their execution and became known as “Tir Khalas Zan” – literally, the Terminator."

Propaganda texts written by the political opposition, of course, include many deviations from the truth. Upon close inspection, the person in the picture from the AP archives does not look very much like Ahmadinejad. But in more current photographs that were published in conjunction with his election as president, he has been identified by former hostages.

The American news channel CNN quoted Donald Sharer, the naval air attach? to the US embassy in Tehran at the time of the hostage crisis, as saying that he was reading the Indianapolis Star when he saw a picture of the president-elect: "All of a sudden, up pops the devil, right in front of me… I haven’t seen the 1979 picture. But as soon as I saw the face, it rang a lot of bells to me. And it was a recent picture, but he still looked like a man, take 20 years off of him, he was there. He was there in the background, more like an adviser. And one other incident, he just called Colonel Scott and myself "pigs" and "dogs," and we deserved to be locked up forever. So when you’re placed in a life-threatening situation of that nature, you just remember those things… I’m 99 percent sure."

Former CIA officer William Dougherty had a similar revelation after seeing a current picture of Mr. Ahmadinejad in the Washington Post: "I remember seeing him acting in a supervisory or leadership capacity during the first, I would say, two-and-a half weeks [of the hostage crisis]. On the 19th day, I was moved into solitary confinement and had very limited contact with even my Iranian guards after that. But in those first 19 days or so, it was he was around the groups. He would come in, question the guards, more or less checking on things when sort of dignitaries would come through. There would be a group of the Iranian leadership, the student leadership, that would escort them as we were put on display as it were, and he would be part of that."

Three more former hostages shared their certainty. But many more said nothing. Some said that they did not want any problems. And one of the former prisoners was vilified for saying that he was glad that such a strong leader had come to power and that he did not wish him harm.

Countless Iranian former student leaders have stood behind Ahmadinejad. One of the most well-known, Abbas Abdi, told the New York Times in an interview that the future Iranian president had really wanted to take part in the seizure of the embassy: he even "called after the embassy was occupied and wanted to join us, but we told him no." Mohammad Ali Sayyed-Nejad, one of the five founders of the OSU, described the events differently. According to him, Ahmadinejad was against the seizure of the embassy: "Mr. Ahmadinejad was a member of the council of the Office for Strengthening the Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries, and later, when people at the meetings started talking about seizing the US embassy, Mr. Ahmadinejad and I were among those who were against it."

The question of the Iranian president’s participation in the seizure of the American embassy was left up in the air. Even George Bush admitted that "American special services still do not possess full information concerning the role of Ahmadinejad in the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979."

The Figure of the President

But despite all of the confusion, the question of the Iranian president’s participation in the events of 27 years ago has not gone away. And the matter still has not led to an answer to the basic question: is he a terrorist or not?

When they seized the embassy in 1979, the Iranians forced the entire world to consider them a force to be reckoned with. By dragging out the negotiations with their various demands, they held the American administration in a state of constant tension and showed American citizens just how powerless and helpless their government and army were. But that was not all.

All of the other countries who had originally been quietly delighted to see the United States fall flat on its face were soon forced to kowtow to the demands of the Iranians. According to veterans of that era, fear of sharing the fate of the American diplomats obliged the representatives of other countries to make significant concessions to the Iranian leadership. For example, construction on industrial projects and similar undertakings that were begun before the Islamic revolution, under the reign of the Shah, continued practically for free. The USSR was not exempted from having to make such overtures towards a deeply anti-Soviet regime. Participants in the seizure of the embassy gained experience in manipulating the world’s superpowers on meager means. And if Ahmadinejad was one of them, it is no less important for the Russians than for the Americans. Thus the person captured in the photograph alongside the wall of the embassy in 1979, with his startling likeness to the Iranian president, is at the center of something that is anything but insignificant.

First of all, it should be noted that there are no signs of retouching on the negative. A thorough inspection showed that it was not subjected to any artistic meddling. Next, we compared the picture with photographs of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of which, thanks to the worldwide photograph agencies, no fewer than 5,000 exist. In order to confirm that the person in the photograph is of the right height, we counted the heights of that person and of Mr. Ahmadinejad in heads (the distance between the chin and the crown of the head). The result in both cases was around 6.7. In any case, even without measuring, it is clear that the student with the submachine gun is significantly shorter than the Americans, and Ahmadinejad is, to put it nicely, not very tall. Then it was time to turn to professionals for help.

It turned out not be not at all what we had expected. We had hoped to turn to experts who would take the pictures and scan them into a computer, where a special program would map the face, hands, etc.; fix the distances between characteristic features; and measure the contours and directions of the lines before coming to an unambiguous conclusion. But it turned out that such programs exist only in the movies: criminologists use computers only to sharpen and enlarge images and must rely on their eyes and experience for the rest.

Questions arose almost immediately when we started to investigate the pictures further. The Iranian president was born in 1956. But the young man with the submachine gun, according to experts, looks older than 23. That could be explained by exhaustion, since after all the preparation and execution of a plan to seize an embassy is no easy task. But in several pictures taken in 2006 Ahmadinejad does not look to be 50 years old, and experts have only very cautiously advanced the possibility of a pre-election facelift.

A point-by-point comparison of the concrete features of the two faces has also failed to yield an unambiguous result. The right eyebrows are identical in both pictures, but the left eyebrows raise questions. The nails on the exposed figures of the right hand appear similar, but the shape of the hand is different. There have been disparities and similarities in the shape of the eyes, the temples, the pattern of hair growth, and the wrinkles on the forehead. Experts scrutinized the place below the lower lip where the beard begins to grow. On the student, that spot is right below the lip, while on the president it is slightly lower. Of course, everyone who wears a beard knows to cut the hair right below the lip so that it does not interfere with eating. Yet more questions are raised by the nose: the student’s nose lacks a pronounced tip and several other details of the presidential nose. In photographs of Ahmadinejad taken from far away, however, the tip of his nose is also not always noticeable.

In sum, on the basis of the materials offered, the experts refused to give a firm and unambiguous answer to the question of whether the young man shown in the early picture is the same person as the president in the later pictures. One of the specialists did note, however, that if the picture of the student were submitted as a photograph of a suspect, Ahmadinejad would definitely be arrested as fitting the suspect’s description.

The conclusion can be drawn that it is impossible to draw any conclusions, and once again an ellipsis must be placed on the end of the question concerning the Iranian president’s participation in the seizure of the American embassy. But a further inspection of all of the pictures taken by the Soviet photographer in Tehran exposed an interesting detail: almost all of the Iranians appear to be less than pleased to have their pictures taken, and many are staring at the photographer with hostility. Among the hundreds of Iranians in the pictures, only one – the student with the submachine gun – is clearly posing, as though he wanted to be remembered by history. And President Ahmadinejad has done everything in his power to make sure that he will be remembered for a long time to come.

We’ve probably all seen the other photographs that purport to show Ahmadinejad with the American hostages:

But this to my mind is a little more convincing a resemblance. Though still not totally.

Moreover, if Ahmadinejad had been involved you would think he would brag about it as one of the highlights of his brilliant career.

So some skepticism is still in order.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, November 15th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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