Moderate sweeps to victory in Iranian poll
Reformist-backed Rowhani beats hardliners to become president
Hassan Rowhani, a moderate cleric, won Iran's presidential election last night in a result that promised to transform its political landscape and could ease troubled relations with the West.
Confounding expectations of a hardline triumph engineered with the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, Mr Rowhani, 64, a former chief nuclear negotiator, was declared the victor of Friday's election.
He took 50.7 per cent of the vote, beating his nearest rival, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, into a distant second place with 16.6 per cent. Four hardline candidates, all favoured by the ruling establishment, finished far behind.
The result amounted to a surprise triumph for Iran's reformist movement and an apparent repudiation of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has driven efforts to thwart political moderates.
It also prefigured a radical change in direction from the divisive presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has overseen a crumbling economy and rising tensions between Iran and the West.
Mr Rowhani, who negotiated with Western diplomats while serving as head of Iran's national security council, promised to end confrontational rhetoric and to seek an easing of international sanctions imposed in an effort to halt Iran's nuclear programme.
Iranians greeted the outcome as an attempt by voters to seek relief from steady economic decline and harsh politics.
"Iranian people have grown up politically. While they fiercely demand fundamental changes in their plight, they accept that under the present regime they are being asked to choose the best out of a limited number of candidates they can ever have as their president," said Abbas Jazayeri, a government clerk from Tehran.
Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, who met Mr Rowhani in his role as nuclear negotiator, said his presidency would mark a departure from Mr Ahmadinejad's often provocative rhetoric.
"Iran's bottom lines aren't going to change on the nuclear question, on Syria or in its support for Palestinians, but the manner of expressing them will change,"he said.
"We should heed what Rowhani has said about the need to avoid extremism and confrontational language. He is a friendly and courteous person. I wouldn't say he is charismatic but I would expect him to grow into the job of president and make a success of it. He will make a real effort to present Iran's policies in a serious way. He is a very effective public servant."
The scale of Mr Rowhani's victory surprised analysts, many of whom had forecast that no candidate would exceed 50 per cent – thus leading to a second round of voting next week.
Instead, the vote, without any apparent accusations of cheating, appeared to serve as an antidote to Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets alleging electoral fraud, leading to weeks of upheaval and a bloody regime response that left dozens dead.
Although seen widely as a moderate conservative, Mr Rowhani's success appeared to be due to his careful wooing of liberal-minded voters, who had become disenchanted with an atmosphere of repression and a stifling of personal freedom.
His campaign gained gradual support after he made outspoken criticisms of the "security atmosphere" in Iranian society in live TV debates and rallies.
Without any high-profile reformists in the field, his speeches drew liberal voters and attracted the attention of Iran's security forces, which were keen to avert the shows of mass support that accompanied Mir Hossein Mousavi's candidacy in 2009. Mr Mousavi, leader of the pro-democracy Green Movement, is now under house arrest.
The bitterness of the 2009 divisions remains a powerful undercurrent summed up by a statement from Ali Agha Soltan, the father of Neda Agha Soltan, a young woman who bled to death on the street after being shot by pro-regime thugs and who came to symbolise the popular opposition.
"None of the members of our family have voted in this election. We want our nation and the leaders of Islamic Republic to know that how could we ever vote for a regime whose agents have murdered a beloved part of us," he said. "This would be a betrayal of her young life."
Nonetheless, Mr Rowhani's campaign gathered a decisive head of steam last week after he won the support of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his moderate predecessor and pillar of Iran's Islamic revolution. Both had been disqualified from contesting the election by the guardian council, a powerful vetting body.
Reformist voters who had intended to boycott the election were persuaded to turn out by the twin endorsement.