WASHINGTON -- The White House said yesterday that it would not be surprised if the newly elected president of Iran turns out to have been a main participant in the holding of American hostages in Tehran a quarter-century ago, but said it was still trying to determine the facts.
Five former American hostages who saw the Iranian president-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in photos or on television said they believe he was among the hostage-takers. One said he was interrogated by Ahmadinejad.
''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."
Yesterday, The New York Times reported on its website that Ahmadinejad denied being one of the hostage-takers in an interview with a Times reporter.
''It is not true; it's only rumors," Ahmadinejad said.
The administration has acknowledged that it has followed Ahmadinejad's political career, so it was unclear why the United States could not say whether he had been 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.
If Ahmadinejad turns out to have been a participant, he would not be the first top Iranian official with a role in the 1979 crisis.
The current vice president of Iran and head of the Environment Department, Massoumeh Ebtekar, was the chief interpreter and spokeswoman for the radical students who took over the US Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Ebtekar gave almost nightly interviews during the standoff, denouncing the hostages as spies and accusing the United States of committing crimes.
Some of the former students have said that 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.
Ebtekar, who is also one of Iran's six vice presidents, has been the highest-ranking woman in the moderate-leaning government of President Mohammad Khatami. She acknowledged her part in the embassy takeover in remarks to reporters in 1998.
A report in The New York Times that year had detailed her involvement, which was not listed in Ebtekar's biography.
She was an 18-year-old freshman at Polytechnic University in Tehran when she became the public voice of the student takeover. She spoke English better than others in the student group because she had lived in suburban Philadelphia as a child and had attended American schools.
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.
National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Thursday that the United States has followed his career. ''Obviously, one of the things you do when you get a report like this is look back and see what you have in the files, and that's the process that's going on now," he said.
Hadley said the White House was looking into the photographs and had not reached any conclusions.
Hadley emphasized that the United States would have to deal with Ahmadinejad, even if the administration did not approve of the way he was elected.