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Reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani wins Iranian presidential election

But even with Glasgow-educated former nuclear negotiator in post, the clerics will rule
  • @AlistairDawber

Hassan Rouhani, the sole reformist candidate in Iran’s election, is the new Iranian president. He was declared the victor after winning, according to the country’s interior minister, more than half the vote, thus avoiding any need for a second round of voting.

The cleric and former nuclear negotiator with Western powers won more than 18.6 million of the 36 million votes cast – more than three times his nearest rival, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran. The establishment favourite, early front-runner and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was well beaten in third place, collecting a mere four million votes.

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

Mr Rouhani had enjoyed a surge in support during the last week of the campaign, and the early returns yesterday morning suggested he might win on the first round. The first votes to be counted were in the more liberal urban areas, but even with the votes tallied later from the country’s rural areas – always more conservative – Mr Rouhani triumphed.  It seems that his support has proved more widespread than was forecast, and, as early as 2pm Tehran time yesterday, Mr Jalili had conceded that he was out of the race.

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 it 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 is a victory for moderates, many of whom took to the streets after Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, angered by the fact that his overwhelming victory was announced even as thousands still queued to vote. Within days, tens of thousands took to the streets of Iran’s major cities in demonstrations that became known as the Green Movement. The stand-off lasted for days before the ruling clerics, led by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lost patience and ordered 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 Mr Khamenei’s inner circle after challenging its authority, and when the loyalist Guardian Council announced the approved list of presidential candidates last month – eight men from an original shortlist of nearly 700 – Mr Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was notably absent.

Yesterday’s result will be interpreted as Iranians becoming increasingly frustrated with their isolation on the international stage, but the poll does not necessarily auger change.

Many doubt that the Iranian president – who in fact has a 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 hard-line stance during the campaign, there is nothing to suggest that the Supreme Leader is open to change. Some say that Mr Rouhani will be to the Supreme Leader what Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is to President Vladimir Putin in Russia.

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

With a doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian 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. “Rouhani 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 before the poll result. “The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up.”

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

Iran’s enemies certainly do not believe the election of Mr Rouhani will alter Iran’s diplomatic stance. His victory could help rein in hostility between Tehran and its Arab neighbours, but many Arabs doubt he can end a sectarian confrontation that has been inflamed by war in Syria.

“We hope the new Iranian president will be a believer in a political solution in Syria,” said one ambassador at the Arab League in Cairo. “All that we read about Rouhani might be grounds for hope – but there is a great difference between election campaigns and what is said once in office.”

Speaking as the polls closed on Friday, Israel’s hard-line Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, reiterated a 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.”

In Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are battling Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists saw little hope for change from Mr Rouhani.

“The election is cosmetic,” said Omar al-Hariri from Deraa, where the uprising began during the Arab Spring two years ago. Muhammed al-Husseini, from the Sunni Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham in Raqaa, noted that power in Iran rested with the Supreme Leader.

Iran’s Election Q&A

Does the election matter?

Yes, but Iran’s president does not set major policies such as the nuclear programme, relations with the West or military projects. This falls under the ruling clerics led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The president oversees vital sectors such as the economy.

Will it affect Iran’s nuclear programme?

It won’t have a direct effect. Indirectly, though, the poll can have some influence. One theory is that it could end the political bickering of the Ahmadinejad era, leaving the clerics more comfortable in making deals with the West. But a second is that a seamless front between the ruling clerics and the new president could embolden Iran to take an even more hard-line approach.   How does the election process work?

Candidates first register with the Interior Ministry. This year, more than 680 did so – from former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to a  46-year-old housewife. Eight were cleared by the Guardian Council. 

Who voted?

There are more than 50 million eligible voters in a population of about 76 million. About a third are under 30 – born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The minimum voting age is 18.

Is it fair?

Allegations of ballot rigging were at the centre of mass protests and riots in 2009 after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election. Supporters of the Islamic system insist voting is fair and transparent, although Iran does not allow outside election observers. 

Are there risks of post-poll unrest?

Iran’s opposition movement has been effectively dismantled by years of crackdowns and detentions. There appears to be little spirit for street demonstrations; Iranians know that retaliation would be swift and harsh.