Iranian Leader Denies He Took Embassy Hostages

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

New York Times

July 1, 2005

TEHRAN, July 1 - A shiny black Peugeot rolled to a stop, and there he was, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president-elect of Iran, smiling through an open window, ready to greet a few of the people who have been coming to his street as a sort of pilgrimage since he won.

The security men tried to keep a cordon around the car, but the president-elect gave his casual smile, and told them to let the people through. He also let this reporter and an interpreter approach.

When asked the question preoccupying many Americans about him just now - Had he been among the students who sacked the United States Embassy in 1979 and held American hostages for 444 days? - his driver started to pull out, but Mr. Ahmadinejad stopped him and said he would answer.

"It is not true," he said. "It is only rumors."

The security men began to push again, and three women draped in flowing black chadors made their way up to the car.

One woman handed Mr. Ahmadinejad a blank piece of paper on which he wrote: "Stick to your Islamic values. God will help you."

And with that, he closed the window and was driven off.

Since the election a week ago, it has been nearly impossible to get a feel for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to take the measure of the man. He has refused all interviews, though he did hold one hourlong news conference. His spokesman has insisted that he was not among the students at the embassy.

He is generally described as an ultra-conservative. He has been a member of the Basij militia, which is made up of young bearded men who ride through the streets on motorcycles enforcing strict codes of behavior and dress, often brutally. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Guard during the war with Iraq. And of course he has recently been accused of being one of the student leaders who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, keeping 52 hostages.

Yet friends, supporters and neighbors here describe the diminutive, bearded man as humble and caring. Mr. Ahmadinejad has a small circle of aides, one that appears a bit overwhelmed by all the demands and preparations ahead. Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University, said that he had known the president-elect since childhood and that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not involved with the student hostage takers. He said they grew up together in East Tehran, and Mr. Hadian-Jazy described his old classmate as among the brightest in the neighborhood.

He called Mr. Ahmadinejad "self-confident, committed and absolutely incorruptible." He said he is very religious, but modern in his thinking. If there is a negative quality, Mr. Hadian-Jazy said, it is that he is very set in his views, and can be hard to persuade otherwise.

"If you can force him to sit down and listen, he has the capability to understand," the professor said.

While Mr. Ahmadinejad maintained a humble life style as the appointed mayor of Tehran, that is likely to change, if for no other reason than security. He lives at the end of a dead-end street, more of an alley that runs alongside a school. The alley opens onto a circle, with a small park in the middle with benches and a field of grass that now attracts those who come to ask favors of the president-elect, and serves as a spot for neighbors to socialize. These days, cars packed with sightseers drive around the circle, stopping to look down the alley, a far cry from the palatial and off-limit homes of other Iranian leaders.

On Friday, the day of prayer and rest in most Muslim countries, some of Mr. Ahmadinejad's neighbors sat on a bench, talking about their favorite son. It is almost a rule that when someone is asked about Mr. Ahmadinejad, the first thing said is that he is a modest person who has never lost touch with his roots. Security is very tight in the neighborhood, and with soldiers and plainclothes agents around, the neighbors were afraid to give their names.

One older man, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said that every year for the Iranian New Year, Mr. Ahmadinejad invited the neighbors over for a celebration. He is described as a devout man who lives in a three-bedroom house with two sons and a daughter. His family has little furniture, they said, and has machine-made carpets, not the more expensive hand-woven ones commonly owned by the better-off.

One son is finishing high school, and the two other children are studying in the university, the neighbors said.

Since he became mayor of Tehran, the city has had a driver pick Mr. Ahmadinejad up for work every day. But on his days off, neighbors said, he still drives the same 1977 Peugeot, without air-conditioning, that is parked in the alleyway beside the house.

People are quick to offer stories about Mr. Ahmadinejad, almost as if he was a religious figure. They say, for example, that he always brought his own lunch to work because he did not want the city to have to pay for his meals.

At the municipal building, Ahmad Esmali's job is to deliver tea to the offices. "This mayor was better than the others," he said recently. "He saw managers and workers with one eye."

In the park on Friday, one neighbor said the mayor had given money to the local butcher, at a shop called Zand, so the butcher could give poor and needy people meat at a discount. Two young men working in the butcher shop said they believed it was true.

It is a common practice in many Middle Eastern cultures for leaders to have audiences with citizens seeking help, or to accept their petitions for assistance. Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to take that custom to heart.

A small security booth sits at the mouth of the alley leading to his house. As Mr. Ahmadinejad's car pulled out, a security agent handed the president-elect a pile of letters that had been delivered that morning, from people seeking some kind of help.

Ali Ghorbani, 29, had just driven up to deliver a letter to the guard booth when Mr. Ahmadinejad pulled up. Mr. Ghorbani wanted to ask for a loan so he and a friend could open a cultural center in Tehran. He was allowed to hand the letter directly to the president-elect. "I didn't have the faintest idea I would see him," Mr. Ghorbani said as he walked away. "He took the letter and told me I would have a reply in two weeks."