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Friday, April 4, 2014

Iran’s Reformers Include More Than One Former Hostage-Taker

A 1979 British television report on the hostage crisis at the United States Embassy in Tehran includes footage of an English-speaking spokeswoman for the group, Massoumeh Ebtekar, who is now one of Iran’s vice presidents and the minister for the environment.

As my colleagues Somini Sengupta and Thomas Erdbrink reported, there has been discomfort and anger in Washington since Iran applied for a visa to let a veteran diplomat who played a part in the 1979 hostage crisis move to New York and serve as its ambassador to the United Nations.

What the outraged reaction from Washington obscures, however, is that several of the former hostage-takers â€" including the man who devised the plan to seize the United States Embassy in Tehran and the woman who explained the group’s demands to foreign reporters â€" later became leading members of the movement for reform in Iran. They actively promoted engagement with the West, even when it was politically unpopular enough to land them in jail.

The diplomat in question, Hamid Aboutalebi, strongly denies that he took part in the storming of the embassy or the taking of prisoners, although he acknowledged, in an interview with an Iranian news site last month, that he served as an occasional translator for the student radicals who eventually held 52 Americans hostage for 15 months.

A recent image of Hamid Aboutalebi from Iran's Khabar Online.A recent image of Hamid Aboutalebi from Iran’s Khabar Online.

When asked to explain his role to an Iranian audience, weeks before the issue was raised in the United States, Mr. Aboutalebi insisted that he was not even in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, the day the United States Embassy compound was seized by a group calling itself Students Following the Imam’s Line. It was eight days later, he said, when he first agreed to translate for the group when a Vatican envoy visited the hostages. The week after that, he recalled, “I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released” by the students on Nov. 19.

No evidence has emerged to support claims that Mr. Aboutalebi was among the leaders of the embassy siege, which was well-documented by the international news media at the time. As the Iranian-American author Hooman Majd predicted this week, however, the nomination of someone associated with the hostage crisis to a post in New York has been seized upon by conservatives in both Iran and the United States opposed to rapprochement.

Indeed, the idea that Iran would put forward a diplomat who played a part in that drama, however small, has been interpreted by American officials as distressing, at best, or offensive, at worst. A State Department spokeswoman called Mr. Aboutalebi’s possible nomination “extremely troubling,” and Senator John McCain described it as “really kind of an in-your-face action by the Iranian government, sending a guy who was responsible for the absolutely, totally illegal incarceration of American citizens.”

Senator Ted Cruz went one step further, calling Mr. Aboutalebi “an acknowledged terrorist” and introducing legislation to ban him from the United States in an impassioned speech that featured a quotation from the movie “Argo.”

In interviews this week, the man who did lead the assault on the embassy, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, suggested that exaggerated claims about Mr. Aboutalebi’s role might have been spread by conservatives in Tehran, hoping to sabotage diplomatic overtures to the West by Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. Mr. Aboutalebi is a senior adviser to the president.

Mr. Asgharzadeh, who became a leading reformist politician and has spent time in jail for his stance, told The Times by telephone on Tuesday, “I think the hard-liners are trying to hold up the progress of President Rouhani’s diplomatic team and make obstacles by making up the story that Mr. Aboutalebi was one of us hostage-takers.”

Speaking to the BBC Persian correspondent Bahman Kalbasi on Thursday, Mr. Asgharzadeh explained that a group of five people made the decision to occupy the embassy and that another 10 students joined the leadership soon after. Those 15 names are well known in Iran, and Mr. Aboutalebi was not in either circle.

In an interview with Mark Bowden in 2004, Mr. Asgharzadeh recalled that his proposal to seize the United States Embassy three decades earlier was immediately supported by two other student leaders who also went on to become reformists â€" Mohsen Mirdamadi, who has been both a member of Iran’s Parliament and a political prisoner, and Habibullah Bitaraf, who was the reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s Iran’s energy minister.

One of two student leaders who opposed his plan, Mr. Asgharzadeh told the BBC in 2009, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who argued that the Soviet Union posed a greater threat to the Islamic Revolution, but the dissenters were outvoted.

An interview with Ibrahim Asgharzadeh in the documentary “Iran and the West.”

As American news networks lined up interviews with former hostages to denounce the choice of Mr. Aboutalebi as an insult, another Iranian reformist who played a much more prominent role as a translator and spokeswoman for the hostage-takers was on an official diplomatic mission on the other side of the world.

Massoumeh Ebtekar, who spoke for the student radicals as a teenager in 1979 and is now one of Iran’s vice presidents and the environment minister, was on a state visit on Thursday to Japan, where she presented a letter from President Rouhani to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Iran's first female vice president, Massoumeh Ebtekar, delivered a letter from President Hassan Rouhani to Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during a visit to Tokyo on Thursday. In 1979, Ms. Ebtekar was a spokeswoman for the students who seized the United States Embassy in Tehran.Pool photo by Kimimasa MayamaIran’s first female vice president, Massoumeh Ebtekar, delivered a letter from President Hassan Rouhani to Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during a visit to Tokyo on Thursday. In 1979, Ms. Ebtekar was a spokeswoman for the students who seized the United States Embassy in Tehran.

Ms. Ebtekar, who learned her fluent English while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s, explained in her book on the takeover of the embassy that the students wanted to trade the hostages for the deposed shah of Iran, fearing he would be reinstated in a coup led by the Central Intelligence Agency, in a rerun of the situation that thwarted Iranian democracy in 1953.

In an interview in 1991, Richard Nixon acknowledged and sought to justify the American role in reinstating the shah of Iran in a 1953 coup.

Ms. Ebtekar, who was openly sympathetic to the victims of the crackdown on protests in 2009, on her blog and in the Tehran City Council, was attacked by a conservative newspaper close to Iran’s ruling cleric when she was appointed to Mr. Rouhani’s cabinet last September. The next month, she wrote in a post for The Guardian that Mr, Rouhani’s election had offered Iran a chance to re-engage with the world after “the irrational and counterproductive policies” of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s years in power.

While it is not clear where the accusations against Mr. Aboutalebi began, one group fiercely opposed to any diplomatic resolution to the standoff between Iran and the West, the Paris-based exiles who call themselves the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have actively promoted the idea that Mr. Aboutalebi was a leader of the hostage-takers.

The same exile group â€" whose militant wing, the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedeen, was removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations only in 2012 after a well-financed Washington lobbying campaign â€" upped the ante further on Thursday, claiming that Mr. Aboutalebi had “coordinated” the assassination of one of its members in Rome in 1993.

Barbara Slavin, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, suggested that the backlash was unfortunate because resolving decades of hostility that followed the hostage crisis might require speaking with a figure like Mr. Aboutalebi, with revolutionary and reformist credentials. “Aboutalebi is said to be extremely close to Rouhani and so, could be an authoritative interlocutor with Americans at a crucial moment in history,” Ms. Slavin wrote. “And rejecting him is likely to give ammunition to Rouhani’s anti-U.S. domestic opposition.”

An Iranian analyst told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor this week that Mr. Aboutalebi, a former envoy to Europe, “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the system” in Iran than others who might serve in his place.

Follow Robert Mackey on Twitter @robertmackey.