THERE was a time when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his annual trip to the United Nations for two big objectives: basking in the attention of America's media hub and personally delivering the views of the Islamic Republic to western leaders.
But what's missing this year is any sense that Ahmadinejad is still a trusted messenger for the ruling clerics, after trying to expand the limits of his power at home and being harshly repulsed. "He's damaged," said Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a political aff

airs professor at Tehran's Azad University. The Dubai-based analyst Theodore Karasik sees "a badly wounded lame duck" arriving in New York for the UN General Assembly session that begins on Tuesday.

There's little doubt about Iran's political pecking order these days: Ahmadinejad and his allies sharply diminished while the theocracy and its protectors - including the hugely powerful Revolutionary Guard - are grinding away at any opposition. Ahmadinejad's voice may be as booming as ever at the UN, but his role as an emissary of Iran's ruling system is severely muted. It adds to the increasing difficulties for western officials in interpreting Iran, with international talks stalled over Tehran's nuclear programme and its key Middle East ally, Bashar Assad in Syria, locked in a battle for survival.

Conflicting messages were on full display this week over efforts to free two Americans jailed in Tehran as spies. Ahmadinejad suggested a bail deal was on the cards. But Iran's judiciary - directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - quickly slapped him down, saying only the courts had the authority to set a timetable for release.

Dozens of Ahmadinejad's political backers have been arrested or hounded out of the public eye by hard-line forces in recent months. His protege and top aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, once billed as a likely successor, has been accused of leading a "deviant current" challenging theocratic rule, of links to a multi-billion bank fraud probe, and even of using "black magic" to cloud Ahmadinejad's mind. In June, the president railed against his opponents for launching a "politically motivated" slur campaign against Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son.

"Ahmadinejad will be going to the UN weaker and more isolated at home than any other time" since taking office in 2005, said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based analyst and biographer.

Shortly after Ahmadinejad returns to Iran from New York, the country will shift into election mode for parliamentary balloting in March. The vote will be a clear test for Ahmadinejad's final year in office. Forces loyal to Khamenei have already set up political committees whose goal is to steamroller Ahmadinejad's allies.