WHEN Austrian President Kurt Waldheim met Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during a recent state visit to Iran, the Iranian leader lavished praise on Dr. Waldheim for his ``anti-Americanism'' and ``anti-Zionism.'' The episode was only the latest embarrassment for Austria stemming from the controversial presidency of the former United Nations secretary-general.
Many Austrians had thought strains caused by Waldheim's presidency were about to end, with the end of his term in June 1992. But now Waldheim, whose past as a Nazi intelligence officer during World War II has made him a persona non grata in the West, is indicating he may seek a second term.
Waldheim has said publicly that he would base his decision ``not on personal interests'' but on ``what is best for the country.'' This was initially interpreted as a signal he would not run again. He is expected to announce his decision next month.
But Waldheim has reportedly begun sounding out politicians about the wisdom of running again, and has also spoken publicly of encouragement he has received to pursue a second six-year term.
His recent visit to Syria and Iran, the first there by a Western leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is seen here as part of his efforts to rehabilitate his name.
Yet several prominent members of Waldheim's conservative People's Party have counseled the president against another term.
``Waldheim simply can't run again,'' says a prominent member of the People's Party, who requested anonymity. ``I think most of us are thinking as much about him as anything else when we say this. It wouldn't be good for him, and it wouldn't be good for the country.''
Waldheim has been banned from entering the United States since 1987, after an Austrian-backed commission of international historians revealed his war past and said he knew of war crimes committed under him.
Waldheim denied the findings, saying he had no taste for serving under the Nazis but was only following orders. Yet he has never been invited to a Western nation in his presidential capacity, keeping his visits to a few Arab countries with which he established strong ties during his UN tenure.
Speculation rose that the Austrian leader might be on the road to reestablishing his reputation when he received a visit from Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel and German President Richard von Weizs"acker in July 1990. But he was again the brunt of Western scorn - although mostly domestic praise - after he became the first Western leader to go to Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait for talks with President Saddam Hussein.
When asked about prospects for a second Waldheim term, many Austrians respond by sighing heavily, as if the question is a burdensome one. But even some of those opposed to his running again believe Waldheim is partly the victim of domestic politics.
``The Socialists have kept the issue alive because with Waldheim it was the first time the conservatives had a candidate who could win,'' says a Viennese communications specialist who tends to vote Socialist. ``The conservatives know they have a proven winner, so that might tempt them.''