Moderate candidate secures surprise victory in race to succeed Mahmnoud Ahmadinejad with just over 50% of the vote
Iran was on the brink of an extraordinary political transformation on Saturday night after the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani sensationally secured enough votes to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani’s apparent victory delighted many reformers in Iran who have been desperate for a comeback to the forefront of Iranian politics after eight acrimonious years under Ahmadinejad.
It will also lift the spirit of a nation suffering from its worst financial crisis for at least two decades due to the unprecedented sanctions imposed by western powers in the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Rouhani, a moderate figure favouring political openness and re-establishing relations with the west, is likely to sooth international tensions. He has been described by western officials as an “experienced diplomat and politician” and “fair to deal with”.
The interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, announced on state television on Saturday night that 72% of the 50 million eligible Iranians had turned out to vote, and that Rohani had secured just over the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a run-off.
Rouhani, a PhD graduate from Glasgow Caledonian University and former nuclear negotiator, has positioned himself as a moderate, favouring talks with the west. He has pledged to find a way out of the current stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programme, which is the root cause of the sanctions crushing the economy.
Responding to the announcement that Rouhani had been elected president, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said: “We note the announcement that Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian presidential elections.
“We call on him to use the opportunity to set Iran on a different course for the future: addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme, taking forward a constructive relationship with the international community, and improving the political and human rights situation for the people of Iran.”
In reaction to a likely Rouhani victory, the Iranian currency, the rial, recovered its value against the dollar by at least 6% on Saturday.
“It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running,” Rouhani said in a television debate during the campaign. During Rouhani’s term as a nuclear negotiator, Iran appeared more cooperative to the international community and in the run-up to Friday’s poll he repeatedly pointed out that on his watch Iran’s nuclear dossier was not referred to the UN security council.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has made clear he will consider any vote as a vote for the Islamic republic but on Friday many of the electorate said they would vote to avoid any risk of Rouhani being defeated by conservatives close to Khamenei. Political analysts interpreted arch-conservative presidential candidate Saeed Jalili’s defeat as a no-vote on Iran’s current nuclear policy.
The authorities had initially said they would begin to reveal results just after 2am local time on Saturday, but it was not until at least four hours later that Mohammad-Najjar appeared on state-run television to begin announcing the results.
At the previous vote in 2009, which many claim was rigged, the final results were announced far quicker.
“It has taken them seven hours to count 800,000 votes while four years ago they counted almost 30 million votes in few hours,” one Tehran resident said. “It might be a good sign that actually this time they’re really counting.”
Analysts believe rigging was less likely this year because Ahmadinejad is not running and the government has not endorsed any of the candidates.
The endorsement of Rouhani earlier in the week by reformist leaders Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani injected last-minute excitement into the race, boosting Rouhani’s chances. The 65-year-old was the only cleric among the six presidential candidates.
Meir Javedanfar , an Iranian politics lecturer at the Inter-disciplinary Centre in Israel described the results as “total and absolute surprise”.
“Based on the 2009 results, which many including myself believe were falsified, the expectation was that Rouhani’s genuine votes would not be counted, as his views do not seem to be in line with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the supreme leader, just like [opposition leaders] Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi’s views were not,” he said.
“If Rouhani wins in the first round, it would be a clear sign that after the 2009 uprising, the supreme leader has learned that his regime needs to regain its legitimacy, and that will only come from counting the vote of the people.”
Former foreign secretary Jack Straw knows Rouhani and described him as “warm and engaging”.
“This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result,” he said.
“What this huge vote of confidence in Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West.”
He added: “On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.”
Speaking to the Observer, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Rouhani’s deputy on Iran’s national security council from 1997 to 2005, and a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, said the results showed Iranians are desperate for “change”.
“The public support of Mr Rafsanjani and Mr Khatami and withdrawal of Mohammad-Reza Aref from the race had a major role in Rouhani’s win,” he said. Khatami and Rafsanjani played a significant role in Rouhani’s victory by holding off declarations of support and persuading Aref to drop out to avoid a split vote.
“Hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran’s political system, but centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them they can still prevail due to their support among the population,” Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council said.
The turnout for Friday’s vote was so high that polling stations stayed open for five hours longer than planned.
Speaking after casting his vote in Tehran, Khamenei had urged for a mass turnout to rebut suggestions by American officials that the election enjoyed little legitimacy.
“I recently heard that someone at the US National Security Council said ‘We do not accept this election in Iran’,” he said. “We don’t give a damn.”
Among those voting was Ebrahim Yazdi, secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran, a banned group that is critical of the system.
“Today’s election is about choosing between bad and worse,” he told the semi-official Mehr news agency. “Voting is a national duty and a right given to you by God.”