When Iranians flocked to the polls on Monday to vote in local elections, Iran's official press agency quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cheering the high turnout.
But on Thursday, Ahmadinejad had no reported comments on the final election results, which showed moderate conservatives opposed to his policies had won a majority of seats. The second biggest bloc of vote-getters were reformists, making a comeback after being driven out of local councils, parliament and the presidency over the past five years -- a result many analysts interpreted as a repudiation of the status quo.
Instead, Ahmadinejad spent the day in western Iran, telling crowds that Iran would never dismantle its nuclear program and referring to President Bush as the "most hated person" in Iran -- the kind of fiery focus on international issues that a number of analysts said was behind his loss at the polls.
In Tehran, where Ahmadinejad was mayor before becoming president 16 months ago, his hard-line allies grabbed only three of the 15 council seats, while moderate conservatives won seven. Reformists won four, and an independent took one. Though the Dec. 15 elections were for local posts, they marked the first time that the public has weighed in on Ahmadinejad's stormy presidency.
Similar anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment appeared in final results of a parallel election for the Assembly of Experts, the body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran's supreme Islamic leader and chooses his successor.
"We consider this government's policy to be against Iran's national interests and security," said Saeed Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party. His party seeks democratic changes within the ruling Islamic establishment and supports resumed relations with the United States.
A big boost for moderates was the large number of votes for former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election runoff. Rafsanjani, who also supports dialogue with the United States, got the most votes of any candidate from Tehran to win re-election to the assembly.
"There's a lot riding on this election," said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.
"Since taking office in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has focused less on domestic issues like grassroots prosperity and anti-corruption, and more on confrontation with Israel and the United States," Berman said. "As such, it was important for him to make a strong showing in the local election as a way of confirming his popularity. That has not happened -- a clear signal that Iranians are becoming increasingly nervous about his leadership."
Berman said it is particularly important to note that Ahmadinejad's mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, did not do as well as expected in the Assembly of Experts election.
"Had Yazdi dominated, many were predicting that he would make a play for the Islamic Republic's top slot, challenging the legitimacy of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and even seeking the job himself," he said. "For now, though, that power struggle seems to have been averted."
The strong showing by reformists -- notably including women -- was particularly impressive given their handicap in advertising, funding and possible electoral manipulation, said Farideh Farhi, an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii.
"Most factions in Iranian politics took these elections (particularly for the municipal councils) seriously, worked hard to form coalitions (reformists were able to, but conservatives were not due to the intransigence of Ahmadinejad supporters), and a large part of the Iranian electorate responded by participating more than usual and effectively acknowledging that there are differences among candidates and platforms," she wrote in a post-election analysis. "To be sure, the choice was limited but that this did not mean that there were no choices to be made."
Assad Homayoun, a former Iranian diplomat now heading the Azadegan Foundation in Washington, agreed there are encouraging signs that Iranians are tiring of the regime, such as recent student protests. But he argued against reading too much significance into the results.
"This election ... will not have much impact on international relations. It will have an impact on local balance, balance between clerics," he said. "(But) the balancer is Khamenei. There will be no change. It means no problem of economics will be solved, unemployment will stay or be increased. ... The government will continue their quest for a nuclear bomb, and the government will continue their support for terrorism."
What's more, argued Homayoun, who favors a secular government for Iran, reformist successes don't mean as much change as some in the West hope. "There is no reform. In Ira, nobody believes in reform," he said. "In this situation, Khatami, Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad ... all of them have the same goal: to liberate Jerusalem and become the leader of the Islamic world."
But other analysts, who argue that popular dissatisfaction and internal reform can pave the way to a more open, free and stable Iranian government with help from Western civil society, say the elections are important evidence in favor of their position.
"The argument that there is no difference between a reformist government and an Ahmadinejad government is like those that said there is no difference between an Al Gore presidency and the Bush presidency," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.
"Experience shows that both in America today and in Iran today there is an important difference. To Mr. Homayoun ... there may not be a difference, but to the people in Iran ... those small, nuanced differences are a whole lifetime difference between absolute repression and relative repression," he said. "They know the difference."