Masoumeh Ebtekar: The Most Powerful Woman in Iran

ABC News

TEHRAN -- She’s one of the most powerful people in Iran: A vice president in charge of a critical portfolio, a key reformist and ally of Iran’s new president.

But in America, she’s still known as Sister Mary.

Masoumeh Ebtekar was born in Tehran to a middle-class family, but gained notoriety as the English-speaking spokesperson for the Iranian students who occupied the U.S. embassy in 1979. For days on end, Ebtekar, who spoke fluent English, became a fixture on American television sets, often translating for western journalists, even as 52 Americans were being held hostage inside.

It’s a role she was well-suited for. At the age of three, Ebtekar’s family moved from Iran to the United States, where her father went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. For six years, first living in Worcester, Mass., then in Upper Darby, a sleepy suburb outside of Philadelphia, Ebtekar’s received an ordinary, suburban American upbringing.

Later, her family returned to Iran, where she enrolled in Tehran Polytechnic university, then a hotbed for student activism during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

She still smiles when she talks about how she got the name Mary.

“I thought I would introduce myself as someone in between, trying to make a connection, and I would use a name that would be meaningful for another culture. … So I chose the name Mary.”

In the years since then, Ebtekar has firmly entrenched herself as a leading reformist in Iran, pushing for better ties with Europe and the West, and calling for a “national dialogue” on social and religious restrictions faced by Iranian women. She was named as the country’s first female vice president in 2005 under reformist leader Mohammed Khatami, and again during the current administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

In a wide-ranging interview with ABC News, she spoke at length about the current nuclear negotiations underway, including her desire for Iran and America to work jointly on issues that affect both countries, particularly wildlife conservation and the environment. She also expresses deep hope that the new spirit of openness and change felt in parts of Iran will translate to better relations with the West.

“It’s very significant,” she told ABC News.

“The policy of President Rouhani has been to promote an atmosphere of moderation in Iran. Moderation and dialogue not only within Iranian society but also with international community. So moderation is the key word here,” she said.

“Together, the U.S. and Iran could work against violence, against radicalism, against militarism in this part of the world, would lead to regional peace and stability but also global peace and stability.”

ABC News' Mary-Rose Abraham and Maurice Abbate contributed to this episode.