Iran's spy chief used just two words to respond to White House ridicule of last week's presidential election: "Thank you."

His sarcasm was barely hidden. The backfire on Washington was more evident.

The sharp barbs from President Bush were widely seen in Iran as damaging to pro-reform groups because the comments appeared to have boosted turnout among hard-liners in Friday's election — with the result being that an ultraconservative now is in a two-way showdown for the presidency.

"I say to Bush: 'Thank you,'" quipped Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi (search). "He motivated people to vote in retaliation."

Bush's comments — blasting the ruling clerics for blocking "basic requirements of democracy" — became a lively sideshow in Iran's closest election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And they highlighted again the United States' often crossed-wire efforts to isolate Iran.

Bush described the election as an exercise in futility because Iran's real power rests with the non-elected Islamic clerics, who can override the president and parliament. Many agree with that description of a regime that allowed just eight presidential candidates from more than 1,000 hopefuls.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said the election shows that the country is out of step with democratic reforms in the Middle East.

"I just don't see the Iranian elections as being a serious attempt to move Iran closer to a democratic future," she said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."

But the harder the United States pushes, even with the best of intentions, the more ground it seems to lose among mainstream Iranians, who represent possible key allies against the Islamic establishment, say some analysts of Iranian politics.

"Unknowingly, [Bush] pushed Iranians to vote so that they can prove their loyalty to the regime — even if they are in disagreement with it," said Hamed al-Abdullah, a political science professor at Kuwait University (search).

In 2002, most Iranians were indignant when Bush placed their nation in an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Since then, U.S.-led pressure over Iran's nuclear program has put even liberal Iranians on the defensive.

Bush's pre-election denunciations seemed to do the same. Iranian authorities claim Bush energized undecided voters to go to the polls and undercut a boycott drive led by liberal dissidents opposed to the Islamic system.

The unexpectedly strong turnout — nearly 63 percent — produced a true surprise in the No. 2 finish of hard-line Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search), He will face the top finisher, moderate statesman Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (search), in a Friday runoff.

Rafsanjani, Iran's president in 1989-1997, has said he is open to greater dialogue with the United States.

But Ahmadinejad offered no such opening after the vote was tallied Saturday, and he could take a harsher stance toward the United States and its concerns — especially accusations that Iran is secretly seeking nuclear arms. Iran denies the charges and puts them down to U.S. anger with the clerical regime.

"You only have to look at the comments" by Bush to understand that he "seeks hostility" against Iran, Ahmadinejad said.

The conservative hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan wrote: "People crushed the U.S. comments and wishes under their feet."

But even many opponents of the Islamic establishment objected to Bush's tone and timing.

The president's words sounded too much like the pre-war rhetoric against Saddam, and many on-the-fence voters were shocked into action, said Abdollah Momeni, a political affairs expert at Tehran University (search).

"People faced a dilemma," Momeni said. "In people's minds it became a choice between voting or giving Bush an excuse to attack."

Another political commentator, Davoud Hermidas Bavand (search), believed the fallout from Bush's statements went beyond the election by destroying lingering hopes that Washington policy-makers finally would accept Iran's regime.

The United States broke ties with Iran after the revolution when militants seized the U.S. Embassy and held 52 hostages for 444 days.

At a news conference Sunday, Iran's foreign minister, Kamel Kharrazi (search), said Bush "should apologize to the people of Iran for his comments." He also extended another wry "thank you."

"Bush's statements brought out voters who didn't want to participate in the elections," Kharrazi said. "We have to thank him for this."

Across the Middle East, Bush's blast hit a fault line.

The president is trying to firm up the United States' pro-democracy credentials by encouraging gradual reforms in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

But at the same time, the White House often is seen as having double standards with the occupation of Iraq and alleged abuses of Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The Bush comments are an example of "the kind of American intervention" that often boomerangs in the region, said Egyptian political analyst Salama Ahmed Salama.

"Bush meant to discourage the hard-liners," he said, "but instead he mobilized their supporters."