CAIRO AND BEIRUT — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can in one instant appear the diplomatic equivalent of damaged goods and in the next a confident leader whose bellicose speeches leave the West wondering how to deal with him and his perplexing nation now that he's won a much-disputed reelection.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly greeted Ahmadinejad at a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but did not grant him a private meeting as he had the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Belarus, the Iranian leader was met not by President Alexander Lukashenko, but by the speaker of the upper house of parliament.
A similar pattern has emerged in the Middle East, where Arab regimes have long been wary of Iran's ambitions. Authorities in Jordan withdrew licenses for two Iranian news organizations this week and the sultan of Oman reportedly canceled a trip to Tehran following the unrest after Iran's June 12 election.
Snubs and slights in the diplomatic world are common, sometimes almost imperceptible. But as long as Ahmadinejad remains in power, with the support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there are concerns about how the messy fallout over his reelection will influence diplomacy regarding Iran's nuclear program, regional stature and relations with the U.S. and Europe.
Tehran's crackdown on dissent and its accusations of Western meddling have led the Obama administration, which had sought to open dialogue with Iran, to toughen its tone. The European Union is contemplating recalling its ambassadors unless Iran releases the last three of nine Iranian employees of the British Embassy arrested over the weekend.
Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel comments and Tehran's spats with U.N. nuclear inspectors have sparked anger in the West over the years, but the current crisis is evoking deeper criticism over Iran's tactics and intentions. It is apparent that the West and Iran are peering through separate prisms: As Britain argued for the release of its employees, a commander of the Revolutionary Guard threatened that Iran would pull out of talks over its nuclear program unless the European Union decided to "apologize" for interfering.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Iran's arrest of the embassy employees was "completely contrary to the sort of good political engagement that Iran says that it wants."
European leaders are "very troubled, and don't really know what to do. They can't excuse the Iranian regime, and they see that they have to try to avoid an Iranian bomb," said Hubert Vedrine, France's foreign minister from 1997 to 2002. "With the Iranian elections, there's a feeling of discouragement that has settled in. I find that absurd, because we could have never seriously imagined that Ahmadinejad would be beaten."
The question is how to engage Iran and Ahmadinejad. The major powers have rarely been unified on this, but Europe and the U.S. cannot fully ostracize Iran given the importance of the negotiations over its nuclear program. A new round of trade sanctions could bolster Ahmadinejad's claims of Western intervention and rally the Iranian public, diverting attention from opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi's pro-democracy movement.
On Thursday in Tehran, hard-line politicians renewed calls for Mousavi's prosecution over the recent protests and ensuing violence. State-run Press TV reported that Iranian intelligence forces had arrested seven members of an anti-government group that had an "active role in provoking" postelection unrest.
"The international community may mount only a weak response to the Iranian crisis, given competing U.S. and EU priorities and the traditional difficulty of organizing international action to defend democracy," according to Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former senior director for Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council.
A recent statement by the Group of 8 foreign ministers did not condemn Iran's postelection crackdown and showed the divisions among industrialized nations on how to respond to Iran. France and Italy sought a toughly worded statement. Russia, often criticized for violations of civil liberties, essentially did not question Iran's election results and opposed any outside effort at promoting democracy. Medvedev may have snubbed Ahmadinejad at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, but he did not question his return to power.
Iran's future relations with the world will depend on the "regime's ability to recover from the deep separations that are currently present within its ranks," said Wahid Abdul Magid, a Middle East affairs analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "If they manage to somehow retain stability, then relations with other countries will remain as they were before the latest elections. It is also obvious that Ahmadinejad's attitude toward the West will be even more acute."