TEHRAN, June 15 (RIA Novosti) – Moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani will become the next Iranian president after gathering enough votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election to avoid a run-off, according to official results announced Saturday.
“In line with the final count, Hassan Rouhani received 18.6 million votes and is the newly elected president of the country,” said Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar.
Rouhani, 64, a former lead Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, will replace the outgoing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose presidency has seen sharp deterioration in ties with Europe and the United States and the imposition of economic sanctions provoked by international opposition to Tehran's nuclear program.
With 37 million people going to the polls, Rouhani collected over 50 percent of the votes cast, giving him enough of a lead over conservative hardliners to avoid a second round of voting. He will formally take up the position in August.
"This victory is a victory for wisdom, moderation and maturity... over extremism," the BBC reported Rouhani as saying in a speech after the announcement of his win.
Turnout during the elections on Friday was 72.7 percent, according to Mohammad-Najjar.
Rouhani’s closest rival was Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the conservative mayor of Tehran and a former police chief, who received less than 16 percent of the vote, Reuters reported. Other hardline candidates, who are considered to be close to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, scored even less.
In a sign that the election of Rouhani might signal the start of a warming of ties with the West, Washington said Saturday that the US would be willing to enter direct negotiations with Tehran.
“The US is ready for direct talks with the Iranian government to achieve a diplomatic solution to the concerns of the international community about Iran’s nuclear program,” US presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.
A more moderate line from Tehran, however, could mean that the country’s relationship with Russia begins to change, according to experts.
“When Iran’s main enemy was Washington, and the struggle was mainly with the US, willingly or unwillingly Tehran turned to Russia for support,” said Alexander Konovalov, head of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies. "There will be changes, but not exactly the ones we want, because they will be, above all, about the improvement of the relationship with the West."
Large crowds, chanting slogans such as “long live reform, long live Rouhani,” were gathering in central Tehran on Saturday evening as news of Rouhani’s victory spread, Reuters reported.
Iran’s last presidential elections in 2009 were marred by accusations of fraud that triggered a series of large demonstrations by the country’s so-called “Green Movement.” Several people were killed and hundreds detained as security forces crushed the protests. Many of the Green Movement's leaders remain under house arrest today.
Updates with expert comment and Carney statement