TEHRAN, Iran - Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani was declared the winner of Iran's presidential vote on Saturday after gaining support among many reform-minded Iranians looking to claw back a bit of ground after years of crackdowns and now resets the country's political order.
The stunning surge behind Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, was seen by his supports as a rebuke of uncompromising policies that have left Iran increasingly isolated and under biting sanctions from the West over Tehran's nuclear program. It also demonstrated the strength of opposition sentiment even in a system that is largely organized against it.
The ruling clerics barred from the race reform candidates seen as too prominent, allowing a list of hopefuls who were mainly staunch loyalists of the supreme leader and the Islamic establishment. But the opposition settled on the 64-year-old Rowhani as the least objectionable of the bunch, making him a de facto reform candidate with backers inspired by his message of outreach rather than confrontation.
Celebrations broke out across Tehran and other cities. Thousands of Rowhani supporters took to the streets leading to his campaign headquarters in Tehran before the final results were announced despite a statement from Rowhani urging his supporters to avoid street gatherings. There were no immediate reports of unrest or attempts by security forces to rein in the crowds - another sign of the sweeping scope of Rowhani's victory with more than three times as many votes as his nearest rival.
But the numbers don't translate directly into power in Iran's Islamic system. The ruling clerics and their protectors, the Revolutionary Guard, maintain control over all key decisions such as nuclear efforts, the military and foreign affairs.
What Rowhani's victory means, however, is that reformists and liberals will likely regain a greater voice and clout to try to shape the views of the theocracy, which cannot easily ignore the decisive outcome of Friday's election to success the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was barred from seeking a third consecutive run.
Ahmadinejad congratulated Rowhani, adding "I hope ... opportunity will be provided more than before to serve and work for the establishment of justice and development of the country."
Rowhani won with 50.7 percent of the more than 36 million votes cast, the Interior Ministry reported, well ahead of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf with about 16.5 percent. Hard-line nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili - who said he was "100 percent" against detente with Iran's foes - came in third with 11.3 percent followed by conservative Mohsen Rezaei with 10.6 percent.
Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said the turnout was 72.7 percent, suggesting that liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott as the election was transformed into a showdown across the Islamic Republic's political divide. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters.
Rowhani just cleared the majority needed to seal victory and avoid a runoff. The Interior Ministry said Rowhani had 18,613,329 votes, followed by Qalibaf with 6,077,292, Jalili with 4,168,946 votes and Rezaei with 3,884,412. The other two candidates were far behind.
Rowhani, the only cleric in the race, led the influential Supreme National Security Council and was given the highly sensitive nuclear envoy role in 2003, a year after Iran's 20-year-old atomic program was revealed.
"Rowhani is not an outsider and any gains by him do not mean the system is weak or that there are serious cracks," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up."
Yet the last campaign events for Rowhani carried chants that had been bottled up for years.
Some supporters called for the release of political prisoners including opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both candidates in 2009 disputed election and now under house arrest. "Long live reforms," some cried at Rowhani's last rally. The rally was awash in purple banners and scarves - the campaign's signature hue in a nod to the single-color identity of Mousavi's now-crushed Green Movement.
In the end, it appeared ideology overcame the economy as a deciding factor. Many voters had indicated they could favor Qalibaf because of his reputation as a competent fiscal steward who could help stabilize Iran's sanctions-battered economy.
Western sanctions over Iran's nuclear program have shrunk vital oil sales and are leaving the country isolated from international banking systems. New U.S. measures taking effect July 1 further target Iran's currency, the rial, which has lost half its foreign exchange value in the past year, driving prices of food and consumer goods sharply higher.
"I cordially congratulate your deserving election as the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and demand the God almighty to bestow you and your future government success in serving the honorable Iranian people," Qalibaf said in a message addressed to Rowhani.
Just a week ago, Rowhani was seen as overshadowed by candidates with far deeper ties to the current power structure: Jalili and Qalibaf.
Then a moderate rival of Rowhani bowed out of the presidential race to consolidate the pro-reform camp. That opened the way for high-profile endorsements including his political mentor, former President Akbar Heshmi Rafsanjani, who won admiration from opposition forces for denouncing the postelection crackdowns in 2009. This, too, may have led to Rafsanjani's being blackballed from the ballot this year by Iran's election overseers, which allowed just eight candidates among more than 680 hopefuls.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not publicly endorse a successor for Ahmadinejad following their falling out over the president's attempts to challenge Khamenei's near-absolute powers.
Khamenei praised Iranians for the high turnout, calling it an "epic and enthusiastic election" and a "dazzling test."
"After weeks of speaking and hearing, it's time to work. The president-elect, until formally taking office, has a precious opportunity ... to begin without hesitation the work that presidential responsibilities require," he said in his message broadcast on state TV.
Iran's stock exchange and currency markets reacted positively to early election results that showed Rowhani ahead.
The stock exchange index rose 2 percent while the rial strengthened by 9 percent against the U.S. dollar.