U.S. investigators have concluded that Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the glowering Islamic militant seen escorting an American hostage in a 1979 photograph that was widely publicized this week, officials said Friday.
The conclusion casts doubt on what had been considered a key piece of evidence indicating that Iran’s new president was among the leaders of the group of students who seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and went on to hold dozens of Americans hostage for 444 days.
A U.S. official familiar with the investigation of Ahmadinejad’s role said that analysts had found “serious discrepancies” between the figure in the 1979 photo and other images of the Iranian president-elect. The discrepancies included differences in facial structure and features, the official said.
If there is a case to be made that Ahmadinejad was among the hostage takers in 1979, the official said, “it doesn’t look as if it will be done on the basis of those photographs.”
The official stressed that the investigation was continuing and that it was “still an open question” whether Ahmadinejad was involved in the hostage crisis. Analysis of the photos was just one of many avenues in what has become a multi-agency inquiry, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that those involved in the inquiry were “searching through all the information at their disposal,” and planned to interview former hostages. McCormack also said that the intelligence community was involved in the inquiry.
He did not elaborate, but other officials said the CIA was among the agencies playing a leading role.
The Bush administration launched the investigation this week after several former hostages said they recognized Ahmadinejad as one of their captors.
Those claims appeared to be bolstered by the 1979 photo, which was in the archives of Associated Press. It depicts two militants, one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Ahmadinejad, on either side of a blindfolded American.
The picture has been widely circulated on the Internet and was carried on the front pages of major newspapers across the country, including Friday’s editions of The Times.
William J. Daugherty, a former CIA officer who was one of the hostages, said Friday that he was not positive that Ahmadinejad was the bearded man shown in the 1979 photo, but said he remained convinced that Ahmadinejad was among the hostage takers.
Daugherty, who lives in Savannah, Ga., said he and other former hostages “did not make our identification based on that AP photo from 1979. We made it looking at the guy today.”
When the Associated Press contacted him this week to show him the 1979 photo, Daugherty said that his initial reaction was that Ahmadinejad and the militant in the picture “could be the same guy.”
After closer examination, he said, “I see some differences,” though he noted that comparing the two was difficult because the smiling politician exhibits a different demeanor from the young militant in the picture, who he said was “deliberately trying to look fierce and menacing.”
Daugherty said that the blindfolded American in the photo was Jerry J. Miele, who was a communications officer at the embassy. The Iranian who resembles Ahmadinejad has not been positively identified.
The allegations about Ahmadinejad have deepened long-standing tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic, which have not had diplomatic relations in more than a quarter-century. President Bush has declared Iran part of an “axis of evil,” and administration officials have refused to rule out military intervention to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, is an Islamic hard-liner whose recent victory over better-known presidential candidates defied predictions. Officials close to Ahmadinejad, as well as some Iranians who are known to have helped orchestrate the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979, have said in recent days that Ahmadinejad was not actively involved.