By Erin Cunningham,
ISTANBUL — Preliminary results in Iran’s presidential election show incumbent leader Hassan Rouhani leading his hardline rival by more than 4 million votes, the Iranian Interior Ministry announced Saturday, following near-record turnout in a pivotal election that could determine whether Iran continues to engage with the world.
Officials said that roughly 40 million Iranians cast ballots in Friday’s election — a turnout rate of more than 70 percent — and that more than half of the votes had been counted Saturday. Rouhani so far has 14.6 million votes, while Raisi is trailing with 10.1 million, officials said. Iranian authorities extended voting hours three times due to long lines at polling stations on Friday. Most polls eventually closed at midnight in Iran.
If the moderate Rouhani maintains his lead, he will have defeated the influential cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative hardliner who views the West with suspicion and has the backing of Iran’s ruling clergy.
At stake in this election is Iran’s international outreach, as well as its national identity as a state either moving toward more social and political openness or turning inward to assuage Iranians troubled by reforms and economic stagnation.
A Rouhani victory would appear to be an endorsement of his project to end thcountry’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.
On the campaign trail, Rouhani has 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 already put the nuclear deal under review.
At home, Rouhani’s promises of a freer society may be hampered by Iranians’ widespread concerns over the economy, which had made him vulnerable during the campaign. The president has curbed inflation and resumed oil exports, but unemployment remains high and economic growth has slowed. Many Iranians still live in poverty.
Across the nation on Friday, voters filed into schools, mosques and other sites to cast ballots after a campaign offering starkly differing visions.
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.
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.
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.
On Friday, Raisi, Rouhani and Khamenei cast ballots as the voting began nationwide, and the supreme leader urged Iranians to head to the polls.
“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 after reformists joined widespread protests against disputed 2009 election results, he was subsequently banned from speaking publicly. 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.