WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday that "many questions" have been raised by allegations of some former American hostages that Iran's president-elect was one of their captors in the late 1970s.
"I have no information," Bush said in an interview with foreign reporters ahead of a trip to Scotland next week. "But obviously his involvement raises many questions."
Afterward, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush was referring to reports suggesting Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
McClellan said the White House is taking the allegations seriously and "looking into them to better understand the facts."
Former hostages Chuck Scott, David Roeder, William J. Daugherty and Don A. Sharer told The Associated Press that after seeing Ahmadinejad on television, they have no doubt he was one of the hostage-takers. A fifth ex-hostage, Kevin Hermening, said he reached the same conclusion after looking at photos. A close aide to Ahmadinejad denied the president-elect took part in the seizure of the embassy or in holding Americans hostage.
The hostage-taking, which came in reprisal for Washington's refusal to surrender ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for trial there, contributed substantially to then-President Jimmy Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.
Militant students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The shah had fled Iran earlier that year after he was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said, "We are now seeking to establish all the facts."
He said the U.S. hostages had not been forgotten and "the Iranians have an obligation to speak definitively." Video: Ex-hostage speaks
McCormack would not say whether the United States would attempt to discuss the situation directly with Iran. There are no direct U.S. relations with Iran, but diplomats from the two countries have participated in joint meetings involving other nations.
Another former hostage, retired Air Force Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, said he doesn't recognize Ahmadinejad as one of his captors. Several former students among the hostage-takers also said they did not believe that Ahmadinejad had taken part in it.
Bush more concerned with Iranian nuclear ambitions
Bush suggested these questions are not his primary concern since Ahmadinejad was elected. Instead, he said, he wants to ensure that Britain, France and Germany, who have been negotiating with Iran to stop its alleged nuclear ambitions, make absolutely 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."
Several of the former hostages insisted they were certain that the president-elect was among their captors. Daugherty said it's further evidence that the State Department should stop defending Iran's immunity from lawsuits filed by the former hostages seeking reparations.
In April 2002, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by the hostages seeking $33 billion in damages. The State Department intervened, arguing the lawsuit would violate the U.S.-Iranian agreements that freed the hostages and would damage U.S. credibility.
"This puts the Bush administration in an interesting position," Daugherty said. "You know how he said, 'You're either for us or you're for the terrorists.' Well, now the leader of Iran is a terrorist."
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.
The aide, Meisan Rowhani, told the AP from Tehran that Ahmadinejad was asked during recent private meetings if he had a role in the hostage taking. Rowhani said he replied, "No. I believed that if we do that the world will swallow us."
Mohammad Ali Sayed Nejad, a longtime friend of the president-elect, said that in 1979, "Ahmadinejad had focused his fight against communism and Marxism and he was one of the opponents of seizing the U.S. Embassy. He was a constant opponent."
Rowhani, the aide to Ahmadinejad, said Ahmadinejad said during the recent meeting that he stopped opposing the embassy seizure after the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed support for it. But the president-elect said he never took part.
However Ahmadinejad may have been among the hundreds of students uninvolved in the holding of the hostages who nevertheless had access to the embassy during that period.
"Definitely he was not among the students who took part in the seizure," said Abbas Abdi, the leader of the hostage-takers. Abdi has since become a leading supporter of reform and sharply opposed Ahmadinejad. "He was not part of us. He played no role in the seizure, let alone being responsible for security" for the students.Iran's tortured path
Another of the hostage-takers, Bijan Adibi, said Ahmadinejad "was not involved. There was no one by that name among the students who took part in the U.S. Embassy seizure."
Some aren't so sure
Some former hostages couldn't be sure about their captors. Former Marine embassy guard Paul Lewis of Sidney, Ill., said he thought Ahmadinejad looked vaguely familiar when he saw a picture of him on the news last week, but "my memories were more of the gun barrel, not the people behind it."
"I cannot positively identify the individual. When I was interrogated, I was blindfolded and shackled," said Alan Golancinski, one of the former hostages who is retired and now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "He does look familiar, but I have no way of positively identifying the individual," he said.
Daugherty, who worked for the CIA in Iran and now lives in Savannah, said a man he's convinced was Ahmadinejad was among a group of ringleaders escorting a Vatican representative during a visit in the early days of the hostage crisis.
"It's impossible to forget a guy like that," Daugherty said. "Clearly the way he acted, the fact he gave orders, that he was older, most certainly he was one of the ringleaders."
Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran, was declared winner Wednesday of Iran's presidential runoff election, defeating one of Iran's best-known statesmen, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. The stunning upset put conservatives firmly in control of all branches of power in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In a first-person account on the British Broadcasting Corp. Web site, world affairs editor John Simpson said he, too, recognized Ahmadinejad, saying there was something "faintly familiar" about him. "I realized where I must have seen him: in the former American embassy in Tehran," Simpson wrote.
‘He was extremely cruel,’ one recalls
Scott, Roeder, Daugherty and Sharer said they have been exchanging e-mails since seeing Ahmadinejad emerge as a serious contender in Iran's elections.
"He was extremely cruel," said Sharer, of Bedford, Ind. "He's one of the hard-liners. So that tells you where their government's going to stand for the next four to five years."
A memory expert cautioned that people who discuss their recollections can influence one another in reinforcing false memories. Also, it's harder to identify from memory someone of a different race or ethnicity, said psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine.
"Twenty-five years is an awfully long time," Loftus said. "Of course we can't say this is false, but these things can lead people down the path of having a false memory."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.