By Erin Cunningham,
ISTANBUL — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was officially declared the winner of Friday’s presidential election with a landslide victory, Iran’s interior minister said, following a near-record turnout in a vote resting largely on whether Iranians supported the incumbent’s efforts to mend ties with the West.
With 57 percent of the vote, Rouhani’s win appears to be a resounding endorsement of his project to end Iran’s pariah status and rejoin the global economy. The signature achievement of his first term was negotiating a nuclear deal with world powers, which constrains Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for major sanctions relief.
Turnout was more than 70 percent, with around 40 million Iranians casting ballots at polls nationwide, officials said. His challenger, the influential cleric Ebrahim Raisi, secured just 15 million votes — a devastating rebuke of Iran’s conservatives who scoff at the soft power of diplomacy.
At stake in the election 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 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, but the nature of the complaints was unclear.
“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.
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.