TEHRAN, Iran - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's opponents won local council elections in Iran, final results showed Thursday, in an embarrassing blow to the hard-line leader that could force him to change his staunch anti-Western stance and focus more on domestic issues.
Last week's elections for local councils in towns and cities across Iran were widely seen as a referendum on Ahmadinejad's 18 months in office.
Since taking power, Ahmadinejad has escalated Iran's confrontation with the United States and the West, drawing the threat of U.N. sanctions for pushing ahead with uranium enrichment in Iran's nuclear program. He has also provoked international outrage for his comments against Israel and casting doubt on the Nazi Holocaust.
His hard-line stances are believed to have divided the conservatives who voted him into power last year, with some feeling Ahmadinejad has spent too much time confronting the West and has failed to deal with Iran's struggling economy.
Moderate conservatives opposed to Ahmadinejad won a majority of the seats in Friday's elections followed by reformists who were suppressed by hard-liners in 2004, according to final results announced by the Interior Ministry.
The final results also represented a partial comeback for reformists, who were crushed over the past five years by hard-liners who drove them out of the local councils, parliament and the presidency. The reformists favor closer ties with the West and further loosening of social and political restrictions under the Islamic government.
In Tehran, the capital, candidates supporting Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a moderate conservative, won seven of the 15 council seats. Reformists won four, while Ahmadinejad's allies won three. The last seat went to wrestling champion Ali Reza Dabir, who won a gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is considered an independent.
Final results for the rest of the country also showed a heavy defeat for Ahmadinejad supporters, and analysts said his allies won less than 20 percent of local council seats nationwide. None of his candidates won seats on the councils in the cities of Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Sari, Zanjan, Rasht, Ilam, Sanandaj and Kerman. Many councils in other cities were divided along similar proportions as Tehran's.
Last week's election for local councils, which handle community matters in cities and towns, does not directly effect Ahmadinejad's administration and is not expected to bring immediate policy changes.
But it was the first time the public has weighed in on Ahmadinejad's stormy presidency since he took office in June 2005. The results are expected to pressure him to change his populist anti-Western tone and focus more on Iran's high unemployment and economic problems at home.
Leading reformist Saeed Shariati said the results of the election was a "big no" to Ahmadinejad and his allies.
"People's vote means they don't support Ahmadinejad's policies and want change," Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Shariati accused Ahmadinejad of harming Iran's interests with his hard line.
"We consider this government's policy to be against Iran's national interests and security. It is simply acting against Iran's interests," he said. His party seeks democratic changes within Iran's ruling Islamic establishment and supports relations with the United States.
Similar anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment was visible in the final results of a parallel election held to select members of the Assembly of Experts, a conservative body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran's supreme leader and chooses his successor.
A big boost for moderates within the ruling Islamic establishment was visible in the big number of votes for former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election runoff.
Rafsanjani, who supports dialogue with the United States, received the most votes of any Tehran candidate to win re-election to the assembly. Also re-elected was Hasan Rowhani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator whom Ahmadinejad has repeatedly accused of making too many concessions to the Europeans.
Iran started having council elections after a reform introduced in 1999 by then President Mohammed Khatami.
More than 233,000 candidates ran for more than 113,000 council seats in cities, towns and villages across the vast nation on Friday. All municipal council candidates, including some 5,000 women, were vetted by parliamentary committees dominated by hard-liners. The committees disqualified about 10,000 nominees, reports said.