TEHRAN — Hassan Rouhani, a moderate Shiite cleric known as one of Iran’s leading foreign policy experts, has won the election to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Islamic Republic’s next president, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar announced Saturday evening.
With results from all the precinct in, Rouhani had won 50.7 percent of the votes, avoiding a runoff, Mohammad-Najjar said.
The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, came a distant second, with 16.6 percent. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hard-line nuclear negotiator, came in third with 11.4 percent. A handful of other conservative candidates fared poorly.
After a surge of support in the final week of campaigning from Iranians who did not plan to vote, Rouhani won a surprising decisive majority in a field of six candidates considered loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s state television, which has been the main source of information and campaigning in Iran’s truncated three-week campaign period, began announcing results just before 6 a.m. Saturday morning, and released updated counts as the day progressed.
After the authorities made a strong push for widespread participation in the election, polling stations in Tehran and elsewhere saw a steady flow of voters, prompting officials to extend voting hours four times, from the customary 6 p.m. ending time to 11 p.m.
Mohammad-Najjar said the voter turnout was 72 percent. He called the strong voter response a “political epic.”
The 2009 election the results — which are still contested by opponents of Ahmadinejad — were announced on state television in the late evening hours, 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, released 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 likely lost votes to fellow conservative candidate Jalili.
In the end, though, it did not matter, as Rouhani took a majority of the votes, which is already being viewed as a repudiation of not only the Ahmadinejad years but also the sway conservatives have held over Iranian politics since 2005.
Rouhani has pledged to bridge the divides between conservatives and reformist, and if his past record is any indication, he is well positioned to do so.
With the backing of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani will have a powerful mandate to improve Iran’s international relations and attempt to negotiate a settlement of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Often referred to as the “diplomat sheikh” in Iranian media, Rouhani led Iran’s nuclear negotiating efforts from 2003 to 2005, resigning the post after Ahmadinejad became president.
Rouhani has since been a harsh critic of Ahmadinejad’s economic and foreign policy.
Even before all the votes were counted, U.S. officials and Iran experts were seeing Rouhani’s strong showing as a positive development that could lead to a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran. The moderate cleric has called publicly for ending Iran’s diplomatic isolation, telling a crowd at one campaign stop last week, “I’ll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace.”
Rouhani’s late surge in the polls surprised many Washington observers, coming at the end of a lackluster campaign that appeared to have been tightly scripted to give an edge to conservatives close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.
Ray Takeyh, a former State Department adviser and Middle East expert, said the results probably “even surprised Rouhani,” who appears to have been an unexpected beneficiary of pent-up resentments among Iranians after years of political repression and the recent economic hardships brought on by Western sanctions.
“This was supposed to be a well-regulated, well-crafted election, and then the wheels came off,” Takeyh said. “It appears that the leadership miscalculated on Rouhani’s appeal, and also miscalculated on the ineptness of its preferred candidates and the impact of the divisions among the conservative coalition.”
Current and former administration officials have been cautious in predicting how the election would impact Iran’s nuclear policies, which are controlled primarily by Khamenei and the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. But some said a landslide for Rouhani could force the country’s religious leaders to shift policies that have subjected Iran to international censure and harsh economic sanctions.
Assuming Rouhani wins, he will likely bring with him a cadre of more moderate diplomats, technocrats and nuclear negotiators who favor a more pragmatic foreign policy, said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice,” a book on the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran.
But whether the political shift leads to a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program depends on many factors, many of them outside the control of Iran’s new president, Parsi said.
“Ultimately the ball comes back to our side of the court,” Parsi said. “Neither side can break this impasse alone.”
The Obama administration withheld public comment as the vote count continued.
Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.