Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to bolster the Islamic Republic's regional standing at an economic summit for Muslim leaders in Turkey on Monday, by declaring that a "new era is starting" after the "definite defeat" of capitalism.
Analysts say that Iran has had a legitimacy deficit since a disputed presidential election and weeks of violent street battles in June, and is now trying recover lost diplomatic ground.
"They've had a real crisis, of both confidence and appearance in regional fora," says Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at the University of Durham in England. "And I think Turkey provides a very neat way forward for them, given that in many Arab circles, Ahmadinejad is not very welcome."
Ahmadinejad, one of the few heads of state to attend the committee meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference here, swept into Istanbul with his entourage to repay the recent visit to Iran of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke of the Iranian president as his "friend."
Iran is under pressure from the West to agree to a UN-brokered nuclear swap deal for enriched uranium, though Tehran has sent mixed signals about whether it will accept. But more important for Ahmadinejad in Turkey was portraying Iran as a regional leader determined to create a new world order and dethrone Western powers.
"We have to draw up programs based on Islamic economic thinkers. That way we can guide people to happiness, security, justice and honesty," Ahmadinejad said. "Change is a must."
Fending off 'bunker mentality'
Professor Ehteshami sees the Iranian president's visit and broader effort to reestablish legitimacy as a necessary move to counter a persistent opposition at home. Five months after Iran's election, sporadic protests have shown that a fierce government crackdown has not succeeded.
"I think they have to do this. What they want is not to give into bunker mentality. And be seen to be doing stuff out there," says Ehteshami. "Ahmadinejad's got so many problems at home, even if he restores legitimacy [in his government], it's hard to see if he can offer anything else.
"Because at every ... national event you can think of – the question of legitimacy is going to be raised by demonstrators," adds Ehteshami. "And the rest of the world is not going to be allowed to forget the domestic troubles."
Mixed messages from Iran
Similar questions have been raised inside and outside Iran about Ahmadinejad's policies. Western officials are uncertain where the government stands on the nuclear offer to exchange the bulk of Iran's low-enriched uranium for a consignment of specialized, higher-grade nuclear fuel for a small reactor that produces medical isotopes.
First the government agreed, during a meeting with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Then Iranian officials said the deal needed to be changed. And over the weekend a key hard-line member of parliament said any deal was dead. That was when the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, said talks could resume.
Likewise, the government has appeared to support renewed ties with America – from a "position of strength," as Ahmadinejad says – while at the same time continuing the fierce anti-American rhetoric that has helped define Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Even the defeated presidential candidate and key opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who has called for a more moderate foreign policy, has complained of inconsistent messages.
The government "has been constantly trying to change its policies recently, by sending congratulation messages, sending letters even if the other side doesn't reply, and expressing readiness for dialogue," Mr. Karroubi said on his website Sunday.
He criticized Ahmadinejad for meeting so many American academics and journalists during his visit to New York in September, as the president has done for several years.
"If one-tenth of such a meeting happened at the time of all past government, Islamists would have come onto the streets ... to protest the government," Karroubi said, according to a Reuters translation. "National interests should be observed. The national interest is not a matter that different governments can change."