TEHRAN — In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters here overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.
Iranian state television reported Saturday that the cleric, Hassan Rowhani, 64, won more than 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff in the race to replace the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure was defined largely by provocation with the West and a seriously hobbled economy at home.
The hard-line conservatives aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finished at the back of the pack of six candidates, indicating that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone, if not the direction of the nation, by choosing a cleric who served as the lead nuclear negotiator under an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
During the Khatami era, Iran froze its nuclear program, eased social restrictions and promoted dialogue with the West, changes that give reformers hope that Mr. Rowhani can also lead Iran out of isolation and religious reaction.
But if the election, which electrified a nation that had lost faith in its electoral process, was a victory for reformers and the middle class, it also served the goals of the supreme leader, restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency. Mr. Ahmadinejad was the first noncleric to hold the presidency, and often clashed with the religious order and its traditionalist allies.
The question for Western capitals is whether a more conciliatory approach can lead to substantive change in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. A willingness to talk does not mean a willingness to concede.
On Saturday a member of Parliament, Sharif Husseini, warned that “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies regardless of the election’s outcome. ”All these policies have been decided by the supreme leader,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Mr. Rowhani, who for 16 years was first secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, has publicly supported for Iran’s disputed nuclear program, having noted in a speech that during the period that Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it made its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said in the speech, which he gave in 2004 and was made public years later. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”
The supreme leader holds ultimate power in Iran, presiding over the state with the final word in religious and civic affairs. But he still needs to build consensus within the narrow world of Iran’s political, security and business elite.
The president has some control over the economy — the public’s primary concern recently — and through the bully pulpit of the office he can set the tone of public debate on a wide variety of issues, from placing restrictions on young people’s socializing to the nuclear program.
The election results put the supreme leader under pressure to allow changes to take place, or allow him to make the kind of changes that might be opposed by hard-liners if they controlled all the levers of power. For the supreme leader, a weak loyal president might be less threatening that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who over time alienated the ayatollah as he spread his own power throughout the bureaucracy.
The ayatollah had exhorted Iranians to exercise their right to vote. Analysts are predicting at least some change. “There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist close to the reformist current of thinking.
“First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy,” said Mr. Laylaz, who, in a sign of confidence, agreed to be quoted by name.
As the race began, conservatives and hard-liners had first seemed to close ranks around Saaed Jalili as their candidate, the nation’s hard-line nuclear negotiator and a close ally of the supreme leader. Mr. Jalili campaigned on the idea of no compromise, which he aimed at negotiations with the west over Iran’s nuclear program — but which may also have been seen by the weary electorate in Iran as a cornerstone of his domestic intentions.
Mr. Rowhani, by comparison, used a key as his campaign symbol, focusing on issues important to the young, including unemployment and international isolation. His message was one of outreach, responsiveness and inclusion, opposite from the hard-liners’ dictates.
“Let’s end extremism,” Mr. Rowhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation.”
He criticized the much-hated morality police officers who arrest women for not having proper head scarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. He said that “in consensus with higher officials” political prisoners would be freed.
At the time his campaign words sounded like empty promises to many potential voters, who pointed out that Mr. Rowhani did not enjoy the support of those in power.
But support from two former presidents, Mr. Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, himself disqualified from participating, lifted Mr. Rowhani’s status, helping him to tap into the votes of millions of dissatisfied Iranians.
His appeal to the younger generation was crucial in a nation where there is an increasing divide between the millions of youths — two thirds of the 70 million population are under 35 — and the ruling hard-liners who use morality police, Internet blocking and other harsh measures to try to mold those born after the revolution.
Many Iranians were disillusioned with their system after the 2009 election, when millions took to the streets because they felt the election had been rigged to allow Mr. Ahmadinejad to return to office. The government dispatched security forces to silence the opposition and placed the leadership of the so-called Green Movement under house arrest for years. Mr. Khamenei took sides in that dispute and at least temporarily lost his standing as an arbiter above the partisan fray, a role he can now try to resume as inevitable conflicts arise between the many power centers in a system with an elected parliament, and oversight religious bodies..
Still within the circumscribed world of Iranian politics the public looked to the vote as a chance to push back.
When Fatemeh, 58, took a seat in the women’s compartment of the Tehran subway on Saturday, she did what she always did, discreetly listening to those around her.
Now, to her surprise, Mr. Rowhani, had won.
“They were all shocked, like me,” she said. “It is unbelievable, have the people really won?”
Feeling defeated by pessimism and expecting Iran could only change for the worse, many awoke on Saturday anticipating that the conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard Corps members who have been amassing power over the past years would alter the outcome of the vote in their favor.
Instead state television, which is under their control, meticulously broadcast the results that came in more slowly than usual, and all showed a clear lead for Mr. Rowhani.
“I thought they would trick us, engineer a runoff with another candidate and make Rowhani lose,” said Reyhan, 30, a poet.
Random interviews with many Iranians who voted on Friday suggested they had felt conflicted about casting any vote among the carefully vetted field of six candidates. But they said at least Mr. Rowhani represented a distinct change from the combative style of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who presided over a painful economic decline and the country’s international isolation.
“We need to end these eight years of horror,” said Mehdi, 29, while leaving a polling station in Narmak, the neighborhood where Mr. Ahmadinejad had lived before he was elected in 2005. “I thought of not voting, but we cannot stand aside.
“Either Rowhani wins, or we leave the country,” he said as his wife nodded.
On Saturday Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former President Khatami, wrote an open letter to the ayatollah seeking relief for the leaders of the opposition movement, the former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the opposition Web site Kalame reported. They have been under house arrest effectively since they challenged the results of the 2009 election, insisting the vote was rigged.
“This is a request by millions of reformists who played a crucial role in fulfilling the Leader’s wish and now they request the Leader to respond positively to their demand and fill their hearts with joy,” Mr. Khatami wrote in an open letter titled “today is the day of mercy.”
For the West, Mr. Rowhani’s election means a possible new opportunity for at least a change in tone in the long stalled nuclear talks.
In a way, the elections were a referendum on the tactics of the talks. Mr. Rowhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2004, when Iran agreed to voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That suspension was reversed under Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure and the replacement of Mr. Rowhani with Mr. Jalili.
Mr. Rowhani faced scathing attacks by Mr. Jalili during the campaign, who suggested Mr. Rowhani had betrayed the country. In an important pre-election speech Ayatollah Khamenei also implicitly warned Mr. Rowhani that it was “wrong” to think that there could be any compromise with western nations.
But that appeared to me a misreading, or misrepresentation of Mr. Rowhani’s position. In a 2004 speech that offered unusual insight into the otherwise opaque world of Iran’s thinking, the former chief negotiator said made it clear his goal was ultimately about mastering the nuclear process.
“If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice—that we do possess the technology—then the situation will be different,” he said in the comments later published. “The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”
I didn't forget the cut and this one is more timely than the one I submitted earlier anyway. So... potential reformer or feel good do-nothing?