The latest developments in x-ray imaging are associated with techniques based on the phase contrast. However, the image reconstruction procedures demand significant improvements of the traditional methods, and/or new algorithms have to be introduced to take advantage of the high contrast and sensitivity of the new experimental techniques. In this letter, an improved iterative reconstruction algorithm based on the maximum likelihood expectation maximization technique is presented and discussed in order to reconstruct the distribution of the refractive index from data collected by an analyzer-based imaging setup. The technique considered probes the partial derivative of the refractive index with respect to an axis lying in the meridional plane and perpendicular to the propagation direction. Computer simulations confirm the reliability of the proposed algorithm. In addition, the comparison between an analytical reconstruction algorithm and the iterative method has been also discussed together with the convergent characteristic of this latter algorithm. Finally, we will show how the proposed algorithm may be applied to reconstruct the distribution of the refractive index of an epoxy cylinder containing small air bubbles of about 300 micro of diameter.