Top Woman in Iran's Government Once Spoke for Hostage-Takers
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
 The New York Times


              TEHRAN, Iran -- Massoumeh Ebtekar is the highest-ranking woman in Iran, a symbol of President
Mohammed Khatami's promise to promote women into high-profile positions in government.

          A 37-year-old mother of two with a doctorate in immunology, Ms. Ebtekar was named last August as
vice president of the environment, a job that gives a woman Cabinet rank for the first time in Iran's Islamic
Republic.

          But Ms. Ebtekar is a woman with a history, a history she would rather not dwell on these days.

          More than 18 years ago, as an 18-year-old freshman at Polytechnic University in Tehran, Ms. Ebtekar
was the official interpreter and spokeswoman of the militants who occupied the American Embassy in Tehran.

          Speaking the near-perfect English she learned in the United States as a child, hiding her hair under a
black hood, and using the nom de guerre "Mary," she became an object of anger and curiosity with her
appearances on American television.

          Night after night she listed the "crimes" of America against Iran and denounced the hostages as "spies"
who should be on trial if the United States did not turn over deposed Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi to Iran's
revolutionary leadership.

          Asked by an ABC News correspondent whether she could see herself picking up a gun and killing the
hostages, she replied: "Yes. When I've seen an American gun being lifted up and killing my brothers and sisters
in the streets, of course."

          These days her role in the embassy seizure is largely forgotten, or at least ignored. It is nowhere on her
official resume; it was not included in the extensive profile and interview of her that appeared in Zanan, a
prominent women's magazine, after her appointment.

          Ms. Ebtekar meets foreign journalists and dignitaries to explain how Iran is struggling to improve
Tehran's dismal air quality and to prevent further pollution of the Caspian Sea from oil development. Later this
week she will accompany Iran's foreign minister and the governor of the central bank to the annual World
Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

          But when confronted by an American journalist who said she recognized her from her role in the
embassy occupation, Ms. Ebtekar acknowledged that she was the face and voice of the keepers of the hostages.

          Her words came slowly, when asked directly whether she was "Mary." "I was," she said. "But I don't
bring those things up."

          Asked about the wisdom or folly of that chapter in Iranian history, she had no apology and made no
excuses.

          "I wouldn't think that it would be logical for any nation to look back and to see any part of their
revolution or their movement as negative because at that time, when it is considered in its own context,
that was the best direction that could have been taken," she said in English in an interview in her office. "I feel
that in that context, that reality, it was a basic necessity in society, in that period of the revolution to preserve
the values."

          Dressed in a long pin-striped coat, a dark-blue headdress and high-heeled boots, Ms. Ebtekar seemed
nonplussed that she had been recognized.

          She said that it was a band of students, not the authorities, that planned and executed the embassy
takeover. She recalled that she, like the other hostage-takers, lived in the embassy compound at different stages
to guard their captives.

          Asked how she was assigned such an important role as official spokeswoman at such a young age, she
smiled. "Everybody just naturally found their roles," she said.

          After the hostages were freed on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration as president in January 1981,
some hostage-takers were rewarded with influential jobs -- as ambassadors and deputy ministers, for example.
Others were elected to Parliament.

         In 1981 Ms. Ebtekar was made editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Kayhan International.
The man who gave her the job was Khatami, who was then head of the Kayhan publishing house.

          As president, Khatami has stressed the importance of creating a civil society in which the rule of law
prevails.

          In his interview with CNN earlier this month, Khatami even expressed regret that the feelings of the
American people had been "hurt" by the hostage crisis, the closest any senior Iranian official has
come to apologizing.

          But his appointment of Ms. Ebtekar to such a lofty post raises questions about whether he considers her
past role relevant or if he simply does not understand how deeply it affected both the American government and
the American people.

          "I continue to regard the seizure of the Embassy as among the most egregious violations of the traditions
and norms of diplomacy and a  gross violation of human rights," Bruce Laingen, the charge 'affaires and most
senior diplomat at the American Embassy when it was seized, said in a telephone interview. "I'm offended and
regret that one of those involved in that violation is now honored in this way."

          Iranian officials declined to speculate about the reasons for Ms. Ebtekar's appointment, except to say that
she is eminently qualified for the job.

          During the interview, Ms. Ebtekar explained how she came to speak English so well. She lived in
Tehran until the age of 3, then moved with her parents to a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. She
lived there for six years, attending Highland Park elementary school while her father was a doctoral student in
engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

          After returning to Iran, she continued studying English at the international school in Tehran. As a
freshman majoring in engineering at Polytechnic University, she took part in demonstrations that helped topple
the Shah.

          Later she became a university professor and activist in women's affairs. Her father, she said, was the
revolution's first minister of the environment, and she is proud to sit in the same office he once did.

          She also talked about the burden of the early days of the revolution, when she was so young.

          "The men and women who came up with the revolution have undergone such difficult stages, difficult
stages -- both social and political turmoil," she said. "Just undertaking and shouldering the responsibility of
implementing and bringing forth a new set of values."

          At the end of the interview, Ms. Ebtekar told her American guest to turn off the tape recorder. Then she
asked that not very much be written about her role as Mary.

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