When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first came to the United Nations General Assembly three years ago, he declared the question of Iran's nuclear program "closed."
Ahmadinejad returned to the UN this week with a different message: that he was open to talks with the U.S. and other Western powers about the nuclear issue. He was greeted by a decree signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sept. 22 banning weapons sales to Iran, including missile defense systems, in compliance with UN sanctions.
"It was a masterful move and a kick in the teeth of Ahmadinejad," Suzanne Maloney, a former U.S. State Department policy planner and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview. "His stature certainly has been diminished."
The contrast between 2007 and this year reflects how Ahmadinejad's changed status at home and abroad has left him in a weakened position at the UN to counter the growing pressure to scale back his nation's nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies suspect the program is aimed at developing atomic weapons, while the Iranians say it is purely for electricity generation.
Political turmoil in Tehran has eroded Ahmadinejad's standing in foreign capitals and cast doubt on his ability to negotiate an end to the nuclear dispute, says Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at New York-based risk consultant Eurasia Group.
"Ahmadinejad has been out front in calling for talks with the U.S., but in the context of ongoing factional fighting, the pragmatic conservatives are very unlikely to let him get credit for improving relations with the U.S.,", Kupchan said in an e- mail. "Any apparent agreement would likely get torpedoed by domestic rancor."
The U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia were united this week in telling Ahmadinejad to comply with UN Security Council demands or remain under trade and financial sanctions. The council wants Iran to cease uranium enrichment and answer the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency's questions about whether the effort is designed to achieve a weapons capability.
Iran, home to the world's No. 2 oil reserves, is under UN sanctions because it refuses to curtail uranium enrichment and the development of ballistic missiles that might carry a weapon.
Ahmadinejad, 53, has been surprised by the strength of the latest Security Council sanctions, adopted June 9, and ensuing penalties imposed by the U.S. and European Union, according to Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.
"The experience of Iran, dealing from history, was that the UN Security Council passes a resolution, the global community yawns, and it is essentially business as usual," Berman said in an interview. "But since June there has been a very significant constriction of trade with Iran from countries you would not expect, such as Turkey and South Korea."
South Korea said on Sept. 8 it would ban any new investments for Iranian oil, gas and construction projects. Turkey's gasoline sales to Iran in July plunged to 47.9 million liters from 187.4 million liters a month earlier after U.S. sanctions against Iran took effect, according to Turkey's statistics office.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who met with Ahmadinejad in New York, said in a Sept. 22 interview with Charlie Rose that sanctions must be respected. "We are not undermining American policies," he said.
Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Sept. 14 that Iran is facing its harshest ever sanctions and Iran's officials should take the threat seriously, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad has drawn criticism for his public statements on Israel. Cuba's Fidel Castro chided Ahmadinejad earlier this month for denying the Holocaust and said his anti- Semitism doesn't help the cause for peace.
At the UN yesterday, envoys representing the U.S. and dozens of other countries walked out of the General Assembly when Ahmadinejad suggested the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were carried out to benefit the U.S. economy and the "Zionist regime." U.S. spokesman Mark Kornblau described the remarks as "abhorrent and delusional."
At home, Ahmadinejad is caught in political pressures stemming from allegations of fraud in his re-election last year and power-sharing disputes with Islamic clerics. Ahmadinejad's bid to take control of foreign policy is opposed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to Mohamad Bazzi of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"Under Iran's theocratic system, the supreme leader holds the true levers of power, especially on political and national security matters," Bazzi said in an interview. "When Khamenei has felt Ahmadinejad and his allies went too far, he has reined him in."
A U.S. official said Sept. 22 that while the Obama administration is committed to diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute, it isn't clear whether Iran is, due to varying statements from its leadership.
The ambiguity was reflected in President Barack Obama's speech to the General Assembly yesterday.
Obama said while he is willing to bargain with Iran, "the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program."