Iran hostage-taker: 'We were the WikiLeaks of our day'

Tehran (AFP) - The Iranian students who stormed the US embassy in 1979 and released thousands of secret CIA documents were the WikiLeaks of their time, their former lead spokesperson has told AFP.

Every year on November 3-4, Iran celebrates the 444-day siege of the embassy when more than 50 diplomats, staff and spies were taken hostage by Islamist students demanding the extradition of the shah, who had fled to America after being deposed a few months earlier in the Islamic revolution.

Massoumeh Ebtekar is now Iran's vice-president and one of its most recognisable politicians, feted globally for her work as head of the environment department.

But back then, she was a 20-year-old medical student -- nicknamed "Mary" by the international press -- who became the face of the hostage crisis thanks to her fluent English.

She now regrets the diplomatic isolation that followed the embassy siege, but she is still proud of their work in releasing documents found in the CIA's files -- some painstakingly reassembled after embassy staff frantically shredded as many as possible when the students stormed the building.

"Revealing these documents was very similar to what WikiLeaks is doing these days. It was the WikiLeaks of those ages," Ebtekar told AFP.

The documents unveiled the CIA's attempts to recruit leading Iranian politicians -- including a liberal who became the first post-revolution president, Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr.

Although he denied being on the CIA payroll, the allegations contributed to his decision to flee the country.

"The hostage crisis... is hugely important to Iran's domestic politics. It was used as a weapon to destroy the opposition," said Michael Axworthy, a British historian who has published several books on Iran.

- 'Important milestone' -

Ebtekar says the documents, later compiled in 77 volumes of "Documents from the US Espionage Den", also showed how Washington was working to subvert popular uprisings around the world.

"(It) was a very important milestone in terms of global politics," she said.

Despite her past, Ebtekar is now a firm supporter of her government's efforts to rebuild ties with the West through last year's nuclear deal.

"Even the students who took part in (the siege), many of them believe that maybe in some aspects, relationships could have been maintained in a more rational manner," she told AFP.

But she remains unrepentant about the hostage crisis. At the time, the students were convinced the US was preparing another coup to reverse the revolution.

"They were not militants, radicals. They thought there was an imminent danger... of another coup d'etat that would have led to the downfall of the very young and fragile Islamic revolution."

Such fears were not completely unfounded. Looming large in every Iranian's mind was the 1953 CIA-organised coup in which the US and Britain conspired to overthrow the enormously popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had dared to nationalise Iran's oil resources.

"They installed a government that was a puppet to American policies for 25 years, a tyrant who had imposed dictatorship, very dark ages for Iran," said Ebtekar.

Washington's decision to grant asylum to the deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was seen as proof of the plot.

However, historians now say it was unlikely a conspiracy was brewing, not least since Pahlavi had terminal cancer.

"The strong impression is that the US government was thrashing around, really not sure what was happening," said Axworthy.

"There was a degree of paranoia on the part of the students, but that's not necessarily unreasonable. (The 1953 coup) had a huge influence on how people viewed the actions of the US and UK."