Iranians took a giant stride toward ending their country’s isolation by voting overwhelmingly in weekend presidential elections for a moderate reformer who promised a clean break from policies that put Iran on a collision course with the West.
Millions of Iranians jammed polling stations across the country to hand a stunning victory to Hassan Rouhani, a Shiite cleric who campaigned on a pledge of “reconciliation and peace.” Rouhani, who had been considered a dark horse, blew past a slate of conservative candidates to win the presidency in the first round of voting, upsetting conventional wisdom and delivering an unmistakable rebuke to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While the election’s impact is far from clear, U.S. officials and Middle East observers welcomed the results as heralding a new chapter in ties between Iran and the West. Some saw increased hope for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, the most intractable and potentially dangerous dispute in Iran’s relations with the West.
“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard,” Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement released by the White House.
News of Rouhani’s win touched off spontaneous street celebrations that turned some of Tehran’s streets into parking lots. During voting on Friday, so many Iranians turned out at polling stations that voting hours had to be extended as many as four times, with some closing after 11 p.m.
When it was over, some 72 percent of Iran’s electorate had turned to vote in the election to replace two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The final results were confirmed in a televised announcement late Saturday by Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, who declared Rouhani the outright winner with 50.7 percent of the votes, avoiding a runoff. The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, came a distant second, with 16.6 percent of the vote. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hard-line nuclear negotiator, came third with 11.4 percent. A handful of other conservative candidates fared poorly.
Iranian analysts said Rouhani apparently rode a wave of enthusiasm that materialized late in the contest, when supporters began sensing the possibility that the moderate could overcome a divided conservative field of candidates who campaigned on their close ties to the supreme leader and allegiance to his policies.
After the 2009 election, the results — which are still contested by opponents of Ahmadinejad — had been announced on state television in the late evening, only a short time after ballot boxes closed, leading to suspicions about the accuracy of the count.
This time, Iran’s Interior Ministry took no chances, releasing the official vote total in live updates, which showed a steady increase in Rouhani’s margin of victory over Ghalibaf.
Until last week, Ghalibaf was widely considered the front-runner, but he likely lost votes to fellow conservative candidate Jalili.