TEHRAN -- She was known to Western media as “Mary” when she appeared before the world’s cameras to speak for the Iranian Islamic revolutionaries who seized 52 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Masoumeh Ebtekar served as spokeswoman for the hostage-takers during the 444-day standoff, chosen for the English fluency she acquired growing up in the United States. But she was also a believer 30-some years ago, she has conceded in recent interviews, in the cause of punishing Washington for its role in a 1953 coup that brought to power the hated shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Ebtekar, now 52 and mellowed, like many faces from that fevered heyday of the revolution, was named by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday to serve as a vice president and head of environmental affairs.
Ebtekar became the first female vice president of Iran in 1997, when she was appointed to the office by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, with whom she served throughout his eight years as political leader.
Her appointment by Rouhani underscored the newly inaugurated president’s efforts to strike a more moderate and collaborative posture toward the West after eight years of intensifying isolation brought on by his combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
An announcement of Ebtekar’s appointment carried by the official Fars News Agency said she holds a doctorate in immunology and has been an associate professor in an array of scientific and medical disciplines at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University.
As a member of the Tehran City Council for the last six years, she led efforts to tackle air-pollution problems in the capital and to protect marine life in the Persian Gulf, the English-language Tehran Times added.
Ebtekar served on the city council under conservative Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, with whom she clashed frequently, according to Iranian media reports. Kayhan Persian, a mouthpiece of the hardliners who are gradually being pushed to the sidelines as Rouhani assembles his team, prepared a critical commentary on Ebtekar’s reemergence in the leadership for its Wednesday editions.
Mohammad Darvish, an environmentalist and columnist for reform-backing publications, said Ebtekar was proposed for the post following an online vote among more than 1,000 ecologists and environmentalists asked who would best serve as the nation’s top environmental advocate.
“It is a good sign to show that President Rouhani is keeping his campaign promise to respect the opinion of experts and professional associations and unions,” said Darvish, praising Ebtekar as well connected and experienced.
Ebtekar is the second woman Rouhani has appointed to a senior administration post, following the selection of Elham Aminzadeh as vice president for legal affairs last month.
The appointments suggest Rouhani is seeking to bolster his campaign trail promises to improve relations with the outside world. The president last week announced that he was taking control of suspended negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programs from the religious hierarchy and putting his reformist foreign minister in charge.
On Monday, Rouhani urged his new Cabinet members to open personal pages on Facebook to be more accessible to the populace -- an about-face from the Tehran regime’s previous efforts to limit Iranians’ access to social media.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.