Early vote count in Iran presidential election gives moderate conservative Hasan Rouhani wide lead


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The Independent Online

Hassan Rouhani, the sole reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election, appeared to be on course to win the first round of voting as ballots were counted today with initial results suggesting that he had won at least half the votes.

The cleric and former nuclear negotiator with Western powers enjoyed a surge in support during the last week of the campaign. Early results suggest that Mr Rouhani might even win the first round outright, avoiding the need for a second round on Friday, which would pitch him against the leading conservative candidate.

Iran’s 50 million electors appeared to have taken the opportunity to tell the theocracy in Tehran that runs the Islamic Republic that they had had enough of eight years of antagonising the West under outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Rouhani has called for a different approach to negotiations with Western powers, especially over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, which the United States, European Union and others say is intent on building a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it is for peaceful means.

At 2pm Tehran time, the establishment favourite and early frontrunner Saeed Jalili conceded that he was out of the race. Later the Ministry of the Interior announced that with 27 million votes counted, Mr Rouhani led on just over 50 per cent of the votes counted, with the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, emerging as the leading conservative on 15.8 per cent. Mr Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator trailed in fourth place on just 11.3 per cent.

Mr Rouhani needs a simple majority to avoid Friday’s runoff, when the conservative vote will gravitate towards the remaining establishment figure. Analysts suggested that Mr Rouhani’s early lead may be exaggerated given that initial results were largely from Metropolitan centres, which tend to back liberal candidates. His lead, though strong, did fall as results from rural areas began to be declared.

Interior Minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, said the final result would be announced by late Saturday. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters, and turnout in Friday’s election was believed to be high. The strongly loyalist newspaper, Kayhan, put turnout at 75 per cent, which suggests that a planned boycott by moderates evaporated, possibly after support massed around Mr Rouhani.

The election of Mr Rouhani, if he does eventually prevail, will be a victory for moderates, many of whom took to the streets after Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009. As thousands were still queuing to vote, Mr Ahmadinejad’s overwhelming victory was announced. Within days tens of thousands took to the streets of Iran’s major cities in demonstrations that became known as the Green Movement. The standoff lasted for days before the ruling clerics, led by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lost patience and ordered the security forces to clear the streets. The following clashes led to several deaths and later the imprisonment and house arrest of many of the movement’s leadership.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term has been marked by international isolation over Iran’s nuclear policies, and subsequently economic ruin that has followed tough sanctions on its oil and financial industries.

He has also become bitterly unpopular among the Mr Khamenei’s inner circle after challenging its authority and when the loyalist Guardian Council announced the approved list of presidential candidates last month – six men from an original shortlist of nearly 700 – Mr Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was notably absent.

If today’s result is to be interpreted as Iranians become increasingly frustrated with their isolation on the international stage, the result does not necessarily auger change. Voting today, Mr Ali Khamenei told the US to go to Hell.

Many doubt that the Iranian president – who in fact has the role similar to that of a Western prime minister under the Supreme Leader – will have enough power to alter the course of Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr Khamenei has led the programme and despite even conservative candidates arguing for a softening of the hitherto hardline stance during the campaign, there is nothing to suggest that the Supreme Leader is open to change.

Iranian liberals may ultimately also find themselves disappointed with Mr Rouhani if he does eventually emerge as president. He is at the core a conservative cleric, who is loyal to the regime. His presence on the approved list of candidates indicates that he is not considered as someone who will disrupt the status quo.

With a doctorate from Glasgow University, Mr Rouhani 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 programme was first revealed. During negotiations with the West, which are now more than a decade old, Mr Rouhani became a respected and well liked figure, despite the seemingly endless discord between the two sides.

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

Mr Rouhani last minute surge in support followed the withdrawal last week of the only other moderate candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref. He also gathered support from former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has lately been seen increasingly a moderate – despite displaying few liberal tendencies during his term between 1989 and 1997 - after backing supporters of the Green Movement in 2009. Mr Rajsanjani had intended to stand himself, but was barred by the Guardian Council, ostensibly on the grounds that at 78 he is too old.

Iran’s enemies certainly do not believe the election of Mr Rouhani will alter Iran’s diplomatic stance. Speaking as the polls closed on Friday, Israel’s hardline defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, reiterated the Jewish state’s tough stance on Iran.

“We must toughen the sanctions against Iran and make this country understand that the military option remains on the table to halt the progress of its dangerous nuclear programme,” Mr Ya’alon said during a visit to the US. “It is Ali Khamenei who will decide who gets elected.”

Other Israeli politicians have called on the West to back up sanctions with what they describe as a “credible nuclear threat”. Recently, the country’s Strategic Affairs Minister, Yuval Steinitz, who has responsibility for Israel’s policy on Iran, accused other countries of not doing enough to threaten the Islamic Republic. Mr Steinitz, along with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has on several occasions warned that a nuclear armed Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but also the Western world. Israel insists that any military action should be led by the US, something that Washington appears to be reluctant to pursue.