03:18 - Source: CNN
Is Iran's new president a reformist?

Story highlights

Hassan Rouhani succeeds Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president

He promises greater personal freedoms without threatening Iran's supreme leader

Israeli prime minister: The world shouldn't let up on sanctions for Iran's nuclear program

"It's not democracy as we know it," Britain's prime minister says of the Iranian election

Tehran CNN  — 

Iranian centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani won the Islamic republic’s presidential election Saturday after campaigning on a “hope and prudence” platform in which he appealed to traditional conservatives and reform-minded voters alike.

Rouhani spoke of reforms without threatening Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or the country’s institutions – of which he is product. The former national security council chief promised greater personal freedoms and indicated he would free political prisoners and jailed journalists.

He takes the helm as Iran deals with sharp economic sanctions tied to international concern about its nuclear program.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned the world against easing such sanctions.

“Regarding the results of the elections in Iran, let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Netanyahu said at a weekly Cabinet meeting.

The prime minister also said Iran’s supreme leader “disqualified candidates who did not fit his extremist outlook.”

Read more: Rouhani, hawk or dove?

In his campaigning, Rouhani pledged to improve the economy and unemployment. As a former nuclear negotiator, he said he would reduce the high tension between Iran and the outside world by addressing the sanctions.

In a message through the semiofficial Fars News Agency, the 65-year-old Rouhani said the win “is the victory of wisdom, moderation, growth and awareness, the victory of commitment and religiosity over extremism and ill tempers.”

Global reactions

In a sign of how the West is interested in how much change Rouhani could bring to Iran, the British Foreign Office immediately called upon Rouhani to set a new course for the country.

“We call on him to use the opportunity to set Iran on a different course for the future: addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, taking forward a constructive relationship with the international community, and improving the political and human rights situation for the people of Iran,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

“The United States remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” the press secretary’s statement added.

Read more: Will Iran shift policy on Syria?

While the White House respected the vote, it charged that the election occurred “against the backdrop of a lack of transparency, censorship of the media, Internet, and text messages, and an intimidating security environment that limited freedom of expression and assembly.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered his congratulations and called on Iran to take a “constructive role in regional and international affairs.”

High turnout reported

Rouhani takes Ahmadinejad’s mantle as one of the country’s most visible figures, at a time when it is dealing with painful economic sanctions tied to international concern about its nuclear program.

But he won’t be Iran’s most powerful man: That distinction belongs to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989. He’s got plenty of backing, from conservative citizens to paramilitary to, most notably of all, the Revolutionary Guard.

On his website, the supreme leader said Rouhani is the president of all Iranians and told supporters of various candidates to set aside their differences and unify.

Rouhani has all-round credentials in Iran’s institutions that include senior cleric, former commander of Iranian air defenses and is an intellectual with three law degrees, including from a university in Scotland.

Read more: The view from Tehran

He has a reputation for shunning extreme positions and bridging differences.

While he has represented Khamenei on Iran’s security council since 1989, he has avoided being perceived as a pushover and has taken exception with the supreme leader on being too rigid toward the international community, according to an Iranian scholar at Stanford University.

Rouhani has accused state-run media of censorship and publishing lies.

Centrist candidate complained of irregularities

Prior to the results, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Iranian election system doesn’t resemble a true democracy.

“We have to remember this is always only an election between a restricted number of candidates. It’s not democracy as we know it,” he told CNN’s Richard Quest.

This reality of Iranian governance, though, didn’t prevent 680 men and women from officially seeking the office. The Guardian Council – a non-elected body made up of six clerics and six lawyers operating under the oversight of the supreme leader – narrowed that group down to eight. Two others subsequently dropped out.

Read more: What’s at stake in election?

Eight candidates were approved, two of whom subsequently dropped out.

The final six contenders don’t include any women. Nor do they include Ahmadinejad’s aide and protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who was among those excluded by the Guardian Council.

The only cleric among the candidates, he has close ties to Khamenei and served in Iran’s parliament for two decades. He was also Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 and holds seats on several powerful decision-making bodies.

Remembering the 2009 chaos

Four years ago, when allegations of election fraud sparked widespread protests, Iran’s police and the Basij, a feared paramilitary group, cracked down on the opposition Green Movement.

Protesters were jailed, and human rights groups alleged many were tortured and killed behind bars while the government quashed the uprising.

Reform politicians representing the movement, including Ahmadinejad’s election rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi, have been under house arrest since 2011.

Despite the unrest, Ahmadinejad’s re-election was formally certified by the clerical establishment.

CNN’s Shirzad Bozorgmehr reported from Tehran and Michael Martinez reported and wrote from Los Angeles. CNN’s Holly Yan, Michael Schwartz, Laura Smith-Spark, Reza Sayah, Azadeh Ansari and Sara Mazloumsaki contributed to this report.