Weeks of political storms in Iran came down to this moment. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could choose to deepen his dispute with the country's top ruler. Or here was a chance to make amends and lift Iran out of an ugly power struggle.
He ended up doing a bit of both.
At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Ahmadinejad lavishly praised Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he added some jabs at those who sided with Khamenei in the showdown _ which began over Iran's spy chief but quickly expanded into a test of wills between the political machine of the presidency and the towering authority of the theocracy.
Ahmadinejad's half-step contrition could say much about the tone of his final two years in office: humbled and diminished to some degree, but showing no intention of drifting quietly into a lame duck exit.
The main message, experts say, is that Ahmadinejad has lost his favored-son status among the ruling clerics, and now Khamenei and the hard-line theocrats are reasserting their grip with parliament elections next year and the vote for Ahmadinejad's successor in mid-2013. This all means Ahmadinejad may be increasingly sidelined in shaping important policies _ including the nuclear standoff with the West _ and grooming a political heir.
Instead, the ruling system will likely try to keep Ahmadinejad and his allies boxed in politically and offer little change in Iran's defiant approach to the West and its Gulf neighbors. At home, meanwhile, the clerics may apply even more pressure on Iran's fractured opposition to keep it in line as the rest of the region is awash in pro-reform struggles, analysts say.
"What we're seeing is the ruling system showing its strength and Ahmadinejad displaying his weaknesses," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, who follows Iranian affairs at Syracuse University. "That's not to say he won't still score some victories. But his time is already fading."
It was inevitable that attention would shift to the race to succeed Ahmadinejad as he has maxed out his time with two consecutive terms. Ahmadinejad, however, dramatically sped up the look-ahead process with a political gambit that backfired.
It started last month when he apparently forced the resignation of the influential Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi.
Some Iranian media speculated it was part of Ahmadinejad's efforts to boost a possible presidential run by his close friend and chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Control of the Interior Ministry is considered an important tool in Iranian politics because its sensitive files have the potential to discredit rivals.
But Supreme Leader Khamenei tossed it all back, reinstating Moslehi and prompting a 10-day disappearing act by Ahmadinejad, who stayed away from Cabinet meetings and other duties.
The no-shows were interpreted as his most audacious challenge to Khamenei, the pinnacle of the Islamic leadership. Clerics, lawmakers and others warned Ahmadinejad to back down and return to work _ which he did last week, but at a clear price.
Now, the once ultra-confident Ahmadinejad appears off balance.
The ruling clerics _ which vet all candidates for high office _ have effectively killed any chance of Mashaei running for president as Ahmadinejad's protege.
Meanwhile, critics in Iran's parliament sense Ahmadinejad is more vulnerable and have started another petition that could _ in the most extreme scenario _ lead to impeachment proceedings. The chants at Friday prayers, too, have included obvious slaps at Ahmadinejad.
"Death to opponents of the supreme leader," the crowd roared at Tehran University last week.
Even Ahmadinejad's longtime supporters, the hugely powerful Revolutionary Guard, signaled that he went too far.
Ahmadinejad got the message: stop messing with the very foundations of the Islamic system. He pulled back before he dug himself any deeper.
"There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad's power has been undermined," said Abolghasem Bayyenat, a political analyst on Iranian affairs.
But Bayyenat and others caution that all sides in Iran's leadership are highly unlikely to escalate the disputes.
The supreme leader is likely worried about any hints of disarray in Iran at a time of major upheavals in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad knows he cannot win an open feud with the guardians of the Islamic Revolution and must be content with smaller steps on his main objectives: trying to further expand the independence and powers of the presidency and secure his legacy by having an ally elected in 2013.
"Khamenei is extremely sensitive to giving any public impression of serious divisions among the top political leaders of the country and would thus like to keep a tap on the political situation," said Bayyenat, who runs the website irandiplomacywatch.com. "While showing his respect for Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is also unlikely to buckle down under political pressure to dismiss ... Mashaei."
Mashaei is a hot button on both sides. He is despised by hard-liners for his views that elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia and statements suggesting Iran can oppose Israel's government but can be friendly with the Israeli people. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, is fully vested in Mashaei as a member of his inner circle. Mashaei's daughter is also married to Ahmadinejad's son.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said there was no doubt about the outcome of the political stare-down in Iran.
"It didn't tell us anything we didn't know _ that Khamenei is the top authority," she said.
But the context is crucial. It's now about the jockeying for who will succeed Ahmadinejad.
Opposition groups claim that the Revolutionary Guard pulled the strings during the 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad, which protesters allege was rigged. The Guard also led the fierce crackdown on demonstrators after the vote and have gradually expanded their power under Ahmadinejad.
The Guard, however, has now made it clear that it will not back Ahmadinejad's ally Mashaei and may further distance themselves from Ahmadinejad as damaged goods during his last two years in office.
"The Revolutionary Guard is interested in the defense of the system rather than the defense of an individual," said Maloney. "It would never sacrifice itself or its influence to stand by anyone seen as challenging the system. Ahmadinejad has cast himself in that role."