June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Hassan Rohani, the lone reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election, took an unexpectedly clear lead in preliminary results, possibly avoiding a run-off.
Rohani, 64, won 51.5 percent of the 27.6 million ballots counted so far, followed by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf with 15.8 percent, according to totals given by Hassan Ali Nouri, head of the elections office at the Interior Ministry, and broadcast on state television. Former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai had 11.3 percent and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili 11.5 percent.
Rohani needs to win more than half the total ballots cast yesterday to avoid a second round, according to the Interior Ministry. About 50 million Iranians were eligible to vote.
His strong showing suggests a “shift of historic significance in Iran,” wrote Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, in a blog after the vote-counting began. “Rohani is an ideal candidate to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue.”
The winner will inherit an economy hurt by inflation and falling oil exports. Voters want the next president to secure the lifting of international sanctions imposed to halt Iran’s nuclear program, according to opinion polls. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn’t eligible to run for a third consecutive term.
Israel has threatened military action to ensure the Shiite Muslim-led state doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons should diplomacy fail, and the U.S. has also signaled it’s ready to use force if Iran’s atomic program leads to a bomb. Rohani has criticized Jalili for his intransigence in negotiations over the nuclear work.
The sanctions are aimed at curbing the nuclear program, which the U.S. and many of its allies allege may be intended for weapons production. Iran maintains the work is needed for civilian purposes, such as generating electricity.
Support for Rohani swelled in the final days of the campaign after former presidents Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami joined forces to endorse him.
Addressing a packed Tehran stadium last week, Rohani, who campaigned on the slogan “prudence and hope,” urged his young supporters to overcome political apathy and their frustration over the lack of jobs and vote for him. Rohani waved a giant key at his rallies as a symbol that he will unlock closed doors.
“Though hardliners remain in control of key aspects of Iran’s political system, the centrists and reformists have proven that even when the cards are stacked against them, they can still prevail due to their support among the population,” Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran” and president of the National Iranian-American Council in Washington, wrote in an e-mail.
Long lines at polling stations yesterday led to voting being extended several times, to 11 p.m. local time. State-run Press TV estimated voter turnout at about 80 percent.
The departure of Mohammad Reza Aref from the campaign on June 10 meant Rohani had the reformist platform to himself against a field of five conservatives who failed to agree on a unity candidate.
Rohani has spoken in favor of increased freedom for the press and non-governmental organizations. He has also called for the easing of social restrictions, criticizing the government’s “unwarranted interventions” in Iranians’ lives.
In April, Rohani promised that his government would pursue “dialogue and interaction with the world.” He also said the economy is in a “critical” situation and that sanctions can’t be blamed for the country’s “weaknesses.”
Still, he said sanctions must be tackled for the economy to take a new direction away from a 30 percent inflation rate and unemployment that left a quarter of Iranians age 15 to 29 without jobs in the year ended March 20.
The nuclear program is the prerogative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has authority over foreign policy and advocates resisting Western pressure. While all candidates backed Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program, Rohani said technological progress shouldn’t come at the expense of public wellbeing.
Rohani is the only cleric among the candidates. His careful grooming contrasts with Ahmadinejad’s, whose unkempt appearance and casual dress initially connected him to some voters. Rohani trained as a lawyer and serves on the Assembly of Experts, the top religious body, which nominates the supreme leader. He’s also head of the Center for Strategic Research at the Expediency Council, an advisory panel headed by Rafsanjani.
Rohani’s election, if early results hold up, would help ease relations between the U.S. and Iran, Maloney said.
“The Obama administration isn’t likely to offer too much too quick and any new president in Iran will have to proceed carefully before signing onto a deal,” Maloney said. “But it should dramatically alter the discussion and deflate the sense of urgency to some degree.”
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