TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's president-elect belonged to the group that seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979, but he played no role in either capturing or holding Americans hostage, according to friends, associates and a former hostage-taker interviewed Thursday.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-liner elected Iran's new president last week, initially opposed the embassy takeover, although he later dropped his opposition, an aide said.
A former hostage-taker also said, "He was not part of us."
But Ahmadinejad, 49, may have been among the hundreds of students uninvolved in the holding of the hostages who nevertheless had access to the embassy during that period.
Five former U.S. hostages said they recognized Ahmadinejad and were certain he was one of the hostage-takers. One hostage said Ahmadinejad interrogated him during 444 days of captivity and appeared to be the students' security chief.
Two former hostages - William J. Daugherty and Don A. Sharer - said they believe Ahmadinejad is in the photos e-mailed to them by the AP.
Former hostage David Roeder said he could not tell whether Ahmadinejad was shown in the photos. Instead, Roeder said, he recognized him from TV footage.
"It's sort of more mannerisms," he said.
One photo, taken a few days into the embassy seizure, shows a blindfolded American being led by two bearded men, one on either side.
The same photos were shown to several former hostage-takers, who said they did not believe Ahmadinejad was in the photos.
Members of Ahmadinejad's office refused to look at the photos or comment on the allegations.
"The president-elect will have four years ahead with a lot work that needs to be done. We won't enter a media game," Kaveh Eshtehardi, a close aide to the president-elect, said when asked to look at the pictures. "We won't heed such allegations."
Guards prevented the AP from entering Ahmadinejad's office to bring the photos.
Several former hostage-takers said Ahmadinejad did not participate in the taking or holding of the hostages and said they did not believe he was the man in the photos.
"I don't believe it's him," said Abbas Abdi, the leader of the student hostage-takers. "I don't think it even resembles him."
Bijan Adibi, a former hostage-taker, agreed. He said the man in the picture is about the same height as everyone else in it, including the American. Adibi said Ahmadinejad is a little shorter than him - and Adibi stands about 5 foot 2.
"Look at every picture of Ahmadinejad today and he is at least a head shorter. In this picture this man is the height of the American," Adibi said.
"For many other reasons I am certain that this picture is not Ahmadinejad."
Ahmadinejad, a student at Tehran's Science and Technical University at the time, was a member of the Office of Strengthening Unity, the group of radical students who planned the embassy takeover, associates said.
But he opposed the takeover and was more concerned with targeting the Soviets than the United States, they said.
"At that time, Ahmadinejad had focused his fight against communism and Marxism and he was one of the opponents of takeover of the U.S. Embassy," Mohammad Ali Sayed Nejad, a longtime friend of the president-elect, told the AP. "He was a constant opponent."
Abdi, the top leader of the students who swept into the embassy Nov. 4, 1979, and took Americans hostage, told the AP that Ahmadinejad was not involved.
"He was not part of us. He played no role in the seizure, let alone being responsible for security," said Abdi, now a leading reform proponent who sharply opposed Ahmadinejad's run for president.
Many students had access to the embassy while it was being held, moving in and out, and Ahmadinejad also may have had access.
During a recent private meeting, Ahmadinejad, asked by a colleague about his role in taking the embassy, said he opposed it when it was being planned, according to an Ahmadinejad aide who attended the meeting.
"I believed that if we did that, the world would swallow us," Ahmadinejad replied, according to the aide, Meisan Rowhani.
Ahmadinejad dropped his opposition after the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed support for the hostage-taking, but he never participated, Rowhani said.