By Erin Cunningham,
ISTANBUL — Preliminary results in Iran’s presidential election show incumbent leader Hassan Rouhani ahead of his hardline rival by more than 7 million votes, officials said, following a near-record turnout in an election that has rested largely on whether voters supported the president’s efforts to mend ties with the West.
Officials said that roughly 40 million Iranians cast ballots in Friday’s election — a turnout rate of more than 70 percent — and that nearly all of the votes had been counted Saturday. Rouhani, widely viewed as a moderate, had secured at least 56 percent of the vote with more than 22 million ballots. His challenger, influential cleric Ebrahim Raisi, had just 15 million votes — a devastating rebuke of Iran’s conservatives who scoff at the soft power of diplomacy.
If the Rouhani maintains his lead, he will have a resounding endorsement of his project to end Iran’s pariah status and rejoin the global economy, an effort he started in his first term by striking a nuclear deal with world powers. That deal constrains Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for major sanctions relief.
At stake generally was Iran’s international outreach, as well as its national identity as a state either moving toward more political openness or turning inward to assuage Iranians troubled by reforms and a sluggish economy.
On the campaign trail, Rouhani had pledged to pursue talks with the United States to lift further sanctions, and push for greater freedoms inside Iran. But, if reelected, he will also face a more confrontational U.S. leader with President Trump, whose administration has put the nuclear deal under review. And at home, Rouhani’s promises of a freer society may be hampered by Iranians’ widespread concerns over the economy. The president has curbed runaway inflation and resumed oil sales on the international market, but the unemployment rate remains high and many Iranians still live in poverty.
But the outcome of the election could have more immediate repercussions across the Middle East. Iran backs anti-Israel factions such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and has close ties with Syria’s regime, which is opposed by the United States and its regional allies.
Just as Iran’s presidential vote took place,Trump headed to Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, to begin a trip that will include a stop in Israel. Iran is expected to be a major topic of Trump’s talks in both countries.
Despite increased tensions with the United States since Trump’s election, Rouhani sees Iran as benefiting from better ties with the West and from foreign investment. He has accused rivals of wanting to thwart progress.
Iran’s president has important sway over domestic affairs and serves as the face of Iran to the world. But all key policies, such as diplomatic initiatives, must be cleared by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cadre of unelected theocrats.
Across the nation on Friday, voters filed into schools, mosques and other sites to cast ballots after a campaign offering starkly differing visions.
On Friday, Raisi, Rouhani and Khamenei cast ballots as the voting began nationwide, and the supreme leader urged Iranians to head to the polls.
Raisi, who has the support of Iran’s security establishment, complained Friday of “widespread voting violations,” according to Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency and other reports. He was photographed arriving at the Interior Ministry in Tehran late Friday, but the nature of the claims was not immediately clear.
“Iranian officials are obsessed with high turnout rates and have been encouraging popular participation in this election, from the campaign stump to the Friday prayer lectern,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Iran’s popular foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appeared amid a crowd of voters at his own polling station.
Elsewhere, people chanted as reformist former president Mohammad Khatami cast his ballot. Khatami served as president from 1997 to 2005 but was banned from speaking publicly after reformists joined widespread protests against disputed election results in 2009. Other opposition leaders — including Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi — remain under house arrest. All vowed to vote for Rouhani.
Although the supreme leader wields ultimate religious and political authority, and a group loyal to him called the Guardian Council vets candidates for office and often disqualifies reformists, Iranian elections remain highly charged and competitive, drawing thousands to rallies around the country.
After casting his ballot , Rouhani called on Iranians to unite behind whoever wins. “Any candidate who is elected should be helped to accomplish this heavy responsibility,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.