Iranian President Rouhani wins reelection, beating hard-liner by a wide margin

Iranian voters delivered a decisive reelection victory to President Hassan Rouhani, endorsing his efforts to engage with the West and find a peaceful path out of diplomatic isolation, according to official results released Saturday.

The Iranian interior ministry announced that Rouhani won 56.9% of the votes cast in Friday’s election compared with 38.6% for his closest rival, hard-line judge Ebrahim Raisi. Two other candidates also received votes.

Jubilant young supporters wearing green and purple headbands and scarves celebrated in the streets and sounded car horns in middle-class northern Tehran, a Rouhani stronghold.

“With this election, the Iranian nation has announced that it wants to improve relations with the world based on mutual and national interests,” Rouhani said in a speech on state television.

"Today, the Iranian nation knows that it wants to follow a nonviolent path of engagement with the world."

By giving Rouhani a second four-year term, Iranian voters cemented their support for the 2015 nuclear agreement that Iran signed with six world powers, under which Tehran has curbed its uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of international economic sanctions.

Although some Iranian hard-liners have criticized the deal because it has failed to bring immediate economic benefits to most people, Iranian voters have signaled in two consecutive national elections that they firmly support a diplomatic approach to resolving Iran’s international disputes. Rouhani’s win follows last year’s parliamentary elections in which moderate and reformist candidates had their best showing in years.

But Rouhani’s policy of conciliation faces a severe challenge from President Trump, who is considering toughening U.S. policy toward Iran. On Saturday, Trump began a visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival, where he was due to sign a $100-billion arms sale agreement. Trump was next scheduled to visit Israel, another ally whose government views Iran as a disruptive force in the Middle East.

“Iranians have once again endorsed a policy of dialogue with the West, but the question is if Trump will unclench his fist and embrace this window for diplomacy,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which advocates for better U.S.-Iran relations.

Rouhani won nearly 23 million votes, a strong improvement over the 18.6 million he garnered in 2013, signaling that he had broadened his support well beyond the young and educated urbanites who propelled him into office.

Despite some analysts’ fears that economic frustrations would depress voter turnout, 75% of eligible voters cast ballots. That continues a trend in Iran, where slates of candidates are determined by a 12-member Guardian Council but campaigning and voting are relatively free, and turnout has not dipped below 60% for a presidential election in 20 years.

The result was as much an endorsement of Rouhani — himself part of the clerical establishment — as a rebuke to Iran’s security establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was widely believed to have backed Raisi. The previously little known judge was a lackluster candidate who promised cash handouts to the poor but was associated with the executions of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.

“Whenever you give Iranian voters any space to choose, they will choose the most reformist-leaning candidate out there,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“It’s not because Tehran folks think [Rouhani] is a democrat, but they happen to believe he is better than the alternative. You could not have picked a darker, more shadowy character than Raisi.”

Whether Rouhani will be able to use his mandate to bring about further reforms remains to be seen. In the Islamic Republic’s theocratic system, the supreme leader has the final say on foreign policy matters, and conservative mullahs impose restrictions on what Iranians can wear and watch.

Under Rouhani, TV satellite dishes are more tolerated and the dress code for women has been somewhat relaxed, although headscarves remain mandatory. But he has failed to enact political reforms, such as gaining the release of three major opposition figures who have been under house arrest since the Green Movement protests of 2009.

Rouhani promised during the campaign that all the remaining economic sanctions against Iran — including some imposed by the U.S. because of Tehran’s support for terrorism — would be lifted in his second term. He also called on Iran’s security forces, led by the shadowy and powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to go back to the barracks — an implicit call to rein in their backing of militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“He does not have a great deal of leverage or power to carry out everything he wants to carry out,” said Misagh Parsa, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College and author of the 2016 book “Democracy in Iran.”

“He told Iranians, ‘I am going to get rid of all the sanctions,’ but his problem is the supreme leader has the final say. The supreme leader and hard-liners have been thriving since the [U.S.] hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war by instigating conflicts to promote national cohesion.”

Some analysts said Rouhani would avoid a confrontation with Khamenei in part because he could be angling to succeed the ailing, 77-year-old supreme leader. Khamenei was a sitting president when he was selected to become Iran’s second supreme leader in 1989.

At 68, Rouhani may have improved his chances considerably over another contender for the leadership, Raisi.

“Average Iranians have already said we’d rather have you, and that is much more consequential in the long term for the Islamic revolution,” Vatanka said.

Most Rouhani supporters were not thinking that far ahead.

“The election campaign and today’s victory have provided a window for the youth to express themselves and be happy at least for a few days,” said Mostafa Hashemi, 31, celebrating in Tehran with a purple balloon in one hand and a firecracker in the other.

“It is a refreshing break every four years, so who cares what the future will be. Seize the moment.”

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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UPDATES:

12:55 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with more details, quotes and background.

2:45 a.m.: This article was updated with remarks from Iran’s interior minister.

This article was originally published at 1:04 a.m.

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