Bush administration officials like to describe Iran as a country isolated from the outside world. Its outlaw government's policies, and especially its nuclear activities, have earned it the distrust of the international community, the fear of its neighbours and, they say, the rightful label of a "rogue state".
But in recent weeks, as Tehran's uranium enrichment dispute with the US, Britain and other western European countries has moved towards a denouement, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has launched an energetic diplomatic counter-offensive. Defying US containment efforts, Iran is pursuing its own policy of regional engagement. And to Washington's growing unease, it seems to be working.
"The Americans are making a big push to isolate Iran. But they are making a big mistake. We are not Burma," said Vahid Karimi of the government-funded Institute for Political and International Studies. "We have plenty of friends."
Mr Ahmadinejad's latest success came at last weekend's meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a pan-Asian economic and security grouping dominated by China and Russia. Iran hopes to win full SCO membership soon.
The Iranian leader said his talks with China's president, Hu Jintao, and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, were "very fruitful". Iran has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world and is second only to Saudi Arabia in Opec as an oil exporter.
As Mr Ahmadinejad spoke in Shanghai, a senior Chinese minister, Ma Kai, was in Tehran expressing interest in extended joint oil, gas and petrochemical projects. "The economies of China and Iran are closely tied together," he said.
Much the same may be said of Iran's growing business with Russia. Mr Putin said he wanted more collaboration with Iran aimed at winning control over downstream energy supplies to "third countries", presumably including Europe. "We are talking about setting up a joint venture on the basis of Russian and Iranian deposits ... We support these initiatives with our Iranian partners," Mr Putin told the Itar-Tass news agency.
Mr Putin also said Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, was "willing to take part in the construction of an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline". The US has strongly urged both India and Pakistan to shelve the pipeline plan as part of its efforts to isolate Iran.
Mr Ahmadinejad has not been slow to spell out the political and strategic implications of his Shanghai hobnobbing with China and Russia, on whose support the US will depend if it seeks UN and other sanctions on Tehran in the nuclear dispute. "Under the present situation, when policies of certain states [are] based on unilateralism, threats and destruction, the SCO can play a crucial role in establishing a justice-based system for the region and the world conducive to peace and stability," he said.
Iran's diplomatic fightback is taking place on other fronts across the Arab and Islamic spheres. "Iran is coming into its own," said Seyed Muhammad Adeli, Iran's former ambassador to Britain and the head of Econotrend, a respected independent thinktank in Tehran. "Iran's regional profile has never been higher in modern times. Our neighbours are ever more convinced that Iran is being unfairly treated by the Americans."
To drive home the point, Tehran is actively building closer links with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and other central Asian countries. Mr Ahmadinejad is planning a Tehran summit of Caspian Sea littoral states to discuss how to stop "foreign intervention" in the area. Iran also recently wooed a Washington favourite, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Tehran, and is busily mending fences with Pakistan.
It has won the support of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab League for its nuclear stance. Its envoys have recently visited Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and some north African states. It has reportedly become the biggest single state contributor of funds to Palestine in the wake of the west's ostracism of the Hamas government.
And in a groundbreaking move earlier this month, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and the second most influential government figure after Mr Ahmadinejad, met Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo. It was the highest-level contact between the two countries since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Mr Ahmadinejad's outspoken hostility to Israel has won him a big following in the Arab world, Tehran officials say. And that is something Egypt, its notional leader, cannot entirely ignore.
"Shanghai was a big success," Dr Karimi said. "All our neighbours support our [nuclear] policy, even Mubarak. We are successful in building up relations. That is why the American position is changing ... They thought we were encircled because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But we're not. That's why they want to talk to us now."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006