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Iran Elects Moderate Candidate Hasan Rowhani to Be Next President

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Next, to Iran. Over the weekend, the country chose a new leader to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. .

Crowds poured into the streets of Tehran on Saturday evening, cheering for the country’s next president, Hassan Rowhani. The man widely described as a reform-minded cleric won Friday’s election in stunning fashion. He captured nearly 51 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff and well ahead of several more conservative candidates.

PRESIDENT-ELECT HASSAN ROWHANI, Iran: God willing, this election will be a prelude to the changes that are demanded by the people. This includes, of course, revolution in the economic cultural, social and political fields.

GWEN IFILL: Rowhani’s win was marked by a late surge, as reform voters coalesced behind him in a turnout that topped 70 percent. It was far cry from the mass protests that followed the 2009 election.

Violent clashes erupted then amid widespread claims that Iran’s ruling clerics rigged the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protesters were forcibly depressed. Rowhani has called for moderation and for reviving Iran’s economy. In recent years, international sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program helped fuel rising inflation and high unemployment.

Rowhani presided over nuclear talks with the West between 2003 and 2005. But, today, the president-elect would not support ceasing Iranian enrichment, at least not without negotiations.

PRESIDENT-ELECT ROWHANI: We will make nuclear talks more active. This is the basic problem. The solution to the nuclear problem is just talks. Neither threats nor sanctions will work.

GWEN IFILL: Rowhani left open the door to improving relations with the United States.

PRESIDENT-ELECT ROWHANI: The problem complicated and difficult. There’s an old wound that should be dealt with, with prudence. Of course, we are not seeking tension or increasing the tension. Common sense says our two countries should think about the future more than the past.

GWEN IFILL: U.S. officials cautiously welcomed Rowhani’s victory, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Obama administration wants to see more.

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: We look forward to him and are hopeful that he will fulfill the campaign promises he made to the Iranian people, such as expanding personal freedoms, releasing political prisoners, and improving Iran’s relations with the international community. But time will tell.

GWEN IFILL: Israel is watching closely as well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. He spoke Sunday.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: While the elections no doubt express the dissatisfaction of the Iranian people with their regime, I don’t see it producing the genuine change in Iran’s nuclear policy.

GWEN IFILL: Israeli President Shimon Peres, by contrast, took a more hopeful stance regarding the new Iranian leader.

SHIMON PERES, Israeli President: He says he will not go for these extreme policies. I am not sure that he has specified policies what will be his policies, but it will be better, I am sure. And that is the reason why the people voted for him.

GWEN IFILL: Rowhani now confronts the challenge of satisfying demands for change at home and abroad, while staying in the good graces of Iran’s hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.