Iran elects new president

Hasan Rowhani wins Iranian election with 50.7% of votes

Relatively moderate candidate says win is ‘victory of intelligence, moderation and progress over extremism’; Khamenei, Ahmadinejad send their congratulations

Hasan Rouhani, center, poses before a large portrait of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, the day after being elected Iran's president, on June 15, 2013 (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Hasan Rouhani, center, poses before a large portrait of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, the day after being elected Iran's president, on June 15, 2013 (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

TEHRAN — Iran’s reformist-backed presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani has won the Islamic Republic’s presidential election with 50.7% of the votes, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar announced Saturday.

Rowhani said his new role was “a victory of intelligence, moderation and progress over extremism,” according to AFP.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated Rowhani on his victory in the country’s 11th presidential elections, Iran’s Press TV reported.

“I believe that all peaks of glory can be conquered by believing and trusting in the Iranian nation and by respecting different interests and tastes,” said Ahmadinejad.

The win was a significant shock, since Rowhani was regarded as the candidate least-favored by the regime, and also because very few observers expected any candidate would manage to secure the 50% of the votes needed for victory in Friday’s election, expecting instead that a second-round runoff would be necessary.

Former nuclear negotiator Rowhani, who declared on Friday that he was running to “boot out the extremists,” evidently gained the support of many reform-minded Iranians looking to claw back ground after years of crackdowns, as well as widespread backing among Iranian minorities.

Still, “Rowhani is not an outsider and any gains by him do not mean the system is weak or that there are serious cracks,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. “The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up.”

Officials reported a voter turnout of 72 percent with some 50 million registered voters coming out to vote, Najjar said.

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf trailed far behind with 16.56% of the votes, while hardliner Saeed Jalili, Khamenei’s preferred candidate, garnered 11.36%.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said earlier that no matter the outcome of the vote, the election itself was a victory for the Islamic republic.

“A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system,” Khamenei posted on Twitter, according to Reuters.

The strong turnout suggested liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott as the election was transformed into a showdown across the Islamic Republic’s political divide.

The turnout shows Iran to be “a very stable country with many people actively participating in elections and various institutions,” Hebrew University lecturer and political analyst Eldad Pardo said.

Speaking on Israel Radio on Saturday, Pardo also said that the more stable Iran is, the more trivial the danger of a nuclear attack.

He added that while Iran’s president and supreme leader possessed much power and influence, the public, popular movements and politically active students and youths also had a certain measure of influence.

“It’s a large, strong, complex country,” Pardo said, adding that even the Iranian leadership — and not just its people — was frustrated by the country’s economic woes. “Iran’s financial center is in Dubai today,” he said, a harsh blow to Iranian national pride.

Iran had changed since the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Pardo said. Ahmadinejad’s presidency had “turned things topsy-turvy,” especially with regard to relations with Israel, which had been in the process of slowly thawing — but there was still hope that the masses could restore the balance.

Many reform-minded Iranians who have faced years of crackdowns looked to Rowhani’s rising fortunes as a chance to claw back a bit of ground.

Israel’s Channel 2 quoted Rowhani saying earlier Friday, as Iran went to the polls to choose a successor to Ahmadinejad, that “I entered the political arena in order to boot out the extremists” — a remark tantamount  to open defiance of the regime led by Khamenei.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran (photo: Wiki Commons)
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran (photo: Wiki Commons)

It would be unthinkable for Khamenei to allow Rowhani to win the presidency, the respected Israeli Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari said on Channel 2 Friday evening, speaking before reports suggested that Rowhani might win the election outright, without even a runoff. So Khamenei’s dilemma, said Ya’ari, would be whether to fake the results of Friday’s vote in order to exclude Rowhani, or risk letting the troublesome candidate through to the second round next Friday, and possibly having to fake the results there. For Khamenei to let Rowhani win the presidency, said Ya’ari, would be “a mortal blow.”

Widespread allegations of result-fabrication in the 2009 presidential elections, which saw Ahmadinejad re-elected at the expense of reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, led to a brief upsurge in protests by reformers, which were violently suppressed by the regime.

The Israeli TV analyst said that Rowhani, the only relatively moderate candidate left in the race, had built support from among Iranian reformists, from the country’s various minorities, and from figures linked to the earlier years of the regime, such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose own candidacy in these elections was banned.

While Iran’s presidential elections offer a window into the political pecking orders and security grip inside the country — particularly since the chaos from a disputed outcome in 2009 — they lack the drama of truly high stakes as the country’s ruling clerics and their military guardians remain the ultimate powers.

Election officials began the ballot count after voters waited in line for hours in wilting heat at some polling stations in downtown Tehran and other cities, while others cast ballots across the vast country from desert outposts to Gulf seaports and nomad pastures. Voting was extended by five hours to meet demand, but also as possible political stagecraft to showcase the participation.

On one side were hard-liners looking to cement their control behind candidates such as Jalili, who says he is “100 percent” against detente with Iran’s foes, or Qalibaf.

Opposing them were reformists and others rallying behind the “purple wave” campaign of Rowhani, the lone relative moderate left in the race.

An Iranian woman displays her ink-stained finger after voting in the presidential and municipal council elections at a polling station in Qom, 125 kilometers south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
An Iranian woman displays her ink-stained finger after voting in the presidential and municipal council elections at a polling station in Qom, 125 kilometers south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran’s establishment — a tight alliance of the ruling clerics and the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard — still holds all the effective power and sets the agenda on all major decisions such as Iran’s nuclear program and its dealings with the West.

Security forces also are in firm control after waves of arrests and relentless pressures since the last presidential election in 2009, which unleashed massive protests over claims the outcome was rigged to keep the combative Ahmadinejad in power for a second and final term. He was barred from seeking a third consecutive run.

The greater comfort level by the theocracy and Revolutionary Guard sets a different tone this time. Opposition groups appeared too intimidated and fragmented to revive street demonstrations, and even Rowhani’s win will not likely be perceived as a threat to the ruling structure.

Rowhani led the influential Supreme National Security Council and was given the highly sensitive nuclear envoy role in 2003, a year after Iran’s 20-year-old atomic program was revealed.

Rowhani’s victory will not be entirely without significance. It could make room for more moderate voices in Iranian political dialogue and display their resilience. It also will bring onto the world stage an Iranian president who has publicly endorsed more outreach rather than bombast toward the West.

The last campaign events for Rowhani carried chants that had been bottled up for years.

Some supporters called for the release of political prisoners including opposition leaders Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both candidates in 2009 and now under house arrest. “Long live reforms,” some cried at Rowhani’s last rally. The rally was awash in purple banners and scarves — the campaign’s signature hue in a nod to the single-color identity of Mousavi’s now-crushed Green Movement.

“My mother and I both voted for Rowhani,” said Saeed Joorabchi, a university student in geography, after casting ballots at a mosque in west Tehran.

In the Persian Gulf city of Bandar Abbas, local journalist Ali Reza Khorshidzadeh said many polling stations had significant lines and many voters appeared to back Rowhani.

Just a week ago, Rowhani was seen as overshadowed by candidates with far deeper ties to the current power structure: Jalili and Qalibaf, who was boosted by a reputation as a steady hand for Iran’s sanctions-wracked economy.

Then a moderate rival of Rowhani bowed out of the presidential race to consolidate the pro-reform camp. That opened the way for high-profile endorsements including his political mentor, former president Rafsanjani, who won admiration from opposition forces for denouncing the postelection crackdowns in 2009. This, too, may have led to Rafsanjani’s being blackballed from the ballot this year by Iran’s election overseers, which allowed just eight candidates among more than 680 hopefuls.

Khamenei, has not publicly endorsed a successor for Ahmadinejad following their falling out over the president’s attempts to challenge Khamenei’s near-absolute powers.

Ahmadinejad leaves office weakened and outcast by his political battles with Khamenei — yet another sign of where real power rests in Iran. The election overseers also rejected Ahmadinejad’s protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei in apparent payback. The usually talkative Ahmadinejad gave only a brief statement to reporters as he voted and refused to discuss the election.

Khamenei remained mum on his own choice even as he cast his ballot. He added that his children don’t know whom he backs.

Instead, he blasted the US for its repeated criticism of Iran’s clampdowns on the opposition and the rejection of Rafsanjani and other moderates from the ballot.

“Recently I have heard that a US security official has said they do not accept this election,” Khamenei was quoted by state TV after casting his vote. “OK, the hell with you.”

By many measures, this election is far removed from the backdrop four years ago.

Iran’s security networks have consolidated near-blanket control, ranging from swift crackdowns on any public dissent to cyberpolice blocking opposition Internet websites and social media. Hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army disrupted at least a half dozen reform-oriented websites, including one run by well-known political cartoonist Nikahang Kosar.

Prominent reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was jailed after the 2009 disputed election, voted from his cell in Tehran’s Evin Prison, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

The economy, too, is under far more pressures than in 2009.

Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program have shrunk vital oil sales and are leaving the country isolated from international banking systems. New US measures taking effect July 1 further target Iran’s currency, the rial, which has lost half its foreign exchange value in the past year, driving prices of food and consumer goods sharply higher.

Outside Iran, votes were casts by the country’s huge diaspora including Dubai, London and points across the United States.

“I hope we take a step toward democracy,” said Behza Khajavi, a 29-year-old doctoral candidate in physics from Boca Raton, Florida, as he voted in Tampa for Rowhani.

In Paris, a 25-year-old Iranian student, Sohrab Labib, voted at his nation’s consulate while a small group of protesters gathered across the street.

“It’s our country. It’s our future,” he said. “In any case, even a little change could influence our future.”

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