Rouhani leads Iran presidential race, expected to win

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is winning in Friday's election, leading by over 7 million votes from his conservative rival, Ebrahim Raisi, Interior Ministry official Ali Asghar Ahmadi said in a televised briefing as the votes were still being counted.

Out of 26 million votes counted so far, he has won 14.6 million - or more than half, officials announced on state TV.

The government said over 40 million people voted, out of 56 million who were eligible.

One of Rouhani's major achievements is considered to be the landmark nuclear deal struck between Iran and five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany in 2015, which enabled the oil-rich country to escape most of the economic sanctions plaguing its economy and to boost oil production and exports.

Voting had been scheduled to run until 6 p.m. (3:30 p.m. Prague time), but was extended several times because of a "rush of voters" that caused lines to form at polling booths in various parts of the country.

Iran has no credible political polling to serve as harder metrics for the street buzz around candidates, who need more than 50 percent of the vote to seal victory and avoid a runoff. Raisi has even been discussed as a possible successor, though Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone.

Despite the removal of nuclear-related sanctions in 2016, lingering unilateral US sanctions that target Iran's record on human rights and terrorism have kept many foreign companies wary of putting stakes in the Iranian market.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, said Rouhani's warning to the Guards about electoral interference "could be aimed at forcing the establishment to back his second term". They dip one of their index fingers in ink, making a print on the form, while officials stamp their ID so they can't vote twice.

Conservative Mostafa Mirsalim and reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba, the other two candidates in the presidential race, were not expected to win any significant percentage of the total votes, Al Jazeera wrote. Rouhani favors engaging in dialog with the West; he secured the nuclear deal, lifting sanctions that helped stabilize the economy.

Rouhani, who had received 18.6m votes in 2013, is projected to receive well above 20m this time.

Opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, had also urged people to vote for Rouhani.

All candidates for elected office must be vetted, a process that excludes anyone calling for radical change, along with most reformists.

The Iranian Interior Ministry has reported a far bigger than expected turnout in the election, estimated at over 70%.

But in an apparent reference to the 2009 disturbances, Khamenei, an unelected clerical hardliner who has the ultimate say in Iran, has previously warned he would confront anyone trying to interfere in the election. The two figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both endorsed Raisi, as did Mohammad Khatami, another reformist who served as Iran's president from 1997 to 2005.

  • Leroy Wright