WASHINGTON — A U.S. official has told NBC News that the photo of the Iranian hostage captor taken in 1979 during the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran "does not appear to be" that the Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there are some "serious discrepancies" between the photo of the captor and one of Ahmadinejad taken during the same period.
But the official said that does not mean Ahmadinejad was not involved in the siege of the embassy in Tehran and the U.S. government is continuing to examine and gather information to determine what role he may have had.
But "if there is a case to be proved" [that Ahmadinejad was one of the Iranian captors in 1979] "these photos won't do it," said the official.
Other officials emphasize efforts to determine what Ahmadinejad may have done in connection with the embassy seizure are ongoing. The U.S. is particularly sensitive not to diminish what former hostages say, both because they were there and because of what they went through.
So unless the U.S. can be "absolutely sure without any question" - in the words of one official - that Ahmadinejad was not one of the captors, the government is not expected to say he wasn't involved.
A U.S. official predicts the analysis could "endure for some time," despite any photo findings. "There are other things to look through," other than the photos said this official.
Questions raised by former hostages
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. Video: Ex-hostage speaks
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.
Some of the former students who took part in the hostage taking have said Ahmadinejad opposed the takeover and played no role in it, even though he was a member of the hard-line Islamic student group that seized the embassy.
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, former students said. During the long standoff, he was writing and speaking against leftist students, they said.
The White House said Friday it would not be surprised if the newly elected Iranian president turns out to have been a main participant in the holding of American hostages in Tehran a quarter century ago. But the administration said it was still trying to determine the facts.
“I don’t think it should be surprising to anyone if it turns out to be true,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said. “This is a regime run by an unelected few that only allowed its handpicked candidates to run in an election that was well short of free and fair.”
The administration has acknowledged that it has followed Ahmadinejad’s career in Iranian politics, so it was unclear why the United States could not say if he were a hostage-taker or whether the issue had been explored before. “Given the nature of the regime and his own past, I don’t think it should be surprising,” McClellan said.
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."
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. Iran's tortured path
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."
Tammy Kupperman, the NBC News State Department Producer, contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.