A FEW YEARS ago the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, with its unparalleled convening powers, produced an Iranian foreign minister, causing anticipation that Iran might be finally coming out of its revolutionary isolation to engage the West.
Last year the Iranian government was well represented in Davos, and the message was conciliatory, though even then there was a problem with Iran's nuclear program. But in discussions with US senators there was a clear mismatch of historical memories. The Americans dwelt on the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in 1979, and the 444-day incarceration of US diplomats, while the Iranians wanted to talk about the CIA-directed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in the 1950s. Despite their differences, however, there was a public dialogue between Western and Iranian officials in a setting that often brings together people who might not otherwise meet.
What a difference a year makes. At this year's meeting, which ended Sunday, there was no one from the Iranian government. And back in Tehran, the new president was setting a whole new tone by making outrageous and unacceptable remarks about the destruction of Israel. At this year's meeting, a major crisis with Iran played just offstage -- a crisis that Senator John McCain told me was the ''single greatest challenge since the end of the Cold War, aside from the overall war on terror, and the one with the least options."
As if the absence of Iranian officials wasn't enough of an indication of troubling times, absent delegates from Hamas figuratively strode through the halls leaving as much worry and consternation as if they had actually been here. But as troubling as the Hamas victory is, it pales beside the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, even for the Israelis.
This year's forum saw more recognition of Iran's historical phobias.
The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, found some common ground with an Iranian academic, Mahmood Sariolghalam, who was the sole Iranian present. Starting in the early years of the 20th century, Britain helped itself to Iran's oil without giving much back, and World War II saw a joint Soviet-British occupation, Straw said.
In the postwar years, the anti-Mossadegh coup brought what many Iranians saw as the dictatorship of the shah. Years of humiliation played a role in both the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the victory of Hamas in last week's Palestinian elections.
In the 1970s I could fly direct from Tel Aviv to Tehran, and there were friendly relations between Israel and Iran based on their mutual suspicion of the Arab powers that lay between them. But anti-shah revolutionaries believe that Israel helped set up the dreaded Iranian secret police, Savak, who imprisoned and tortured dissidents. Iran's revolutionaries still lump Israel and America together as oppressors, although there is no real hatred for either among the Iranian people.
In playing the anti-Israeli card some believe that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is trying to distance Iran from the conciliatory years -- forcing Iran into the status of pariah state so that there will be no going back. The only solace is that in Iran the president cannot make war and peace decisions, and the mullahs who hold real power may be more circumspect, if not more friendly.
At heart, Sariolghalam said, Iran's strategic posture is defensive, and all the influence with Hezbollah and Hamas are chips to be played to protect the realm and the revolution. If you were told that you were part of an ''axis of evil" by a US administration practiced in regime change, and if you saw your country encircled by American armies to your east and west, you too might want to arm yourself with nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. Once again the perception is different in Washington than it is in Tehran.
The Bush administration seems to be playing its hand with caution in cooperation with its allies, a far cry from its pre-Iraq invasion stance. This time it is the US Congress that is more bellicose. However, all agree that a military campaign to knock out Iran's nuclear capability would do great collateral damage to Iran and to the West's interests. And even then it might not succeed. If the coming rounds of diplomacy fail, there will be, as McCain said, no good options.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.