In Surprise Result, Iran Elects Moderate Presidential Candidate Hassan Rouhani

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images

Hassan Rouhani flashes the sign of victory as he leaves a polling station after voting in Tehran on June 14, 2013

The landslide election of the only moderate candidate in the Iranian presidential contest stunned the Islamic Republic’s hard-line establishment, which had taken great pains to tilt the field of candidates toward conservatives sycophantic to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. By collecting more than half of the vote in the first round of balloting, reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani was borne into Iran’s highest elective office by a broad public desire to correct the insular, right-wing trajectory of Iranian political discourse and bring the country out of the severe economic and diplomatic isolation imposed by world powers intent on Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani’s election, announced by the Interior Ministry, recalled the surprise 1997 win of Mohammad Khatami. Khatami’s victory transformed the political landscape of the theocratic state established after the 1979 revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi. But the presidential election some celebrating Iranians had in mind on Saturday was the last one, the 2009 ballot that was widely seen as stolen from reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, resulting in weeks of violent protests and mass arrests. Chants of “Mousavi, Mousavi, I got back your vote” and “Mousavi, Mousavi, congratulations on your victory,” were heard outside Rouhani’s campaign headquarters in downtown Tehran, according to Reuters.

(PHOTOS: Iranians Cast Vote in an Uneasy Election)

The impact on Iran’s nuclear program, and stalled negotiations intended to assuage international concerns about its intents, was far from clear. But in a field of candidates winnowed from more than 100 to just eight by a conservative clerical body known as the Guardian Council — and then reduced to six by strategic withdrawals — Rouhani was the only candidate who called for “rationality and moderation” after eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the right-wing populist Khamenei twice supported in hopes of bringing the country’s elected and unelected spheres into harmony. Instead, Ahmadinejad challenged the leader during his second term, while the world at large condemned Iran both for Ahmadinejad’s reckless rhetoric — he repeatedly denied the Holocaust — and the regime’s defiant refusal to reassure the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes.

“What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country,” Rouhani told the reformist daily Sharq in a June 12 interview. “This is my only wish. Extremism pains me greatly. We have suffered many blows as a result of extremism.”

Rouhani, 64, was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator when Khatami’s government — with the assent of Khamenei — agreed to suspend uranium enrichment to reassure a worried world after the clandestine program was discovered in 2002. After enrichment resumed in 2005, he boasted that Iran had used negotiations to stall for time while installing additional centrifuges in its underground plant.

(MORE: Iran Election: Reformers Gain Momentum in Final Days of Campaign)

He campaigned on a program of ending the nuclear standoff and freeing Iran’s economy of the crippling sanctions that have cost the country billions in lost oil revenue and foreign investment, while sharply reducing the value of its currency. “I said it is good for centrifuges to operate, but it is also important that the country operates as well and the wheels of industry are turning,” Rouhani said in one television interview. The approach was at odds with the defiance preached by Khamenei’s preferred candidate, current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Though detailed results were not immediately available, all preliminary counts had second place going to Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Qalibaf. A spokesman for Israel’s government noted in a statement that “Iran’s nuclear program has so far been determined by Khamenei, not by Iran’s President. After the elections, Iran will continue to be judged by its actions, in the nuclear sphere as well as on the issue of terror.”

Rouhani also spoke of “minimizing” the long-standing hostility between Iran and the U.S., which broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran after the takeover of its embassy there, engendering an enmity nurtured by both sides ever since. The approach is in line with reformist doctrine — Khatami reached out repeatedly to America, calling for “dialogue” — but meaningful rapprochement has been thwarted by Khamenei, who remains deeply distrustful of Washington.

(MORE: Iran’s Election: Three Battle It Out as Islamic Republic Heads to the Polls)

His own frustration in the job once led Khatami to declare that Iran’s President has less power than an average citizen. In fact, the President appoints the cabinet and provincial governors. But the elected office stands below an expansive apparatus of unelected offices and panels, topped by Khamenei, who wields direct control over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the national security apparatus, and even much of Iran’s economy, two-thirds of which is directly controlled by the regime.

Little in the normally opaque, complex ruling apparatus is as clear and powerful as the election result, however. After the riots and foment of 2009, Khamenei was clearly intent on restoring the credibility of the polls, and expressed satisfaction with the campaign as voting was under way on Friday. Turnout was reported in the vicinity of 70%. “In 2009 was same excitement but w/ insults; this election has no disrespect,” Khamenei’s office tweeted. “It’s valuable that we’ve progressed so much in 4 years.”

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