ISTANBUL - The man poised to take the Iranian presidency is a moderate-conservative known for his negotiating skill over the country's nuclear weapons program and a reformist some hardliners in Iran previously saw as too liberal and conciliatory, analysts say.
As a result, analysts predict Hasan Rowhani, who took a wide lead in early returns from Friday's election, might take the country's top political post and bring hope to the country's liberal classes but not wield any real power, especially on the nuclear issue.
"A president Rowhani would probably try to persuade the supreme leader that a deal on the nuclear issue would be in the interest of the Islamic Republic, especially if Rowhani believes that it is the only way to avoid a war," said Bruno Tertrais, a senior researcher at Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (Foundation for Strategic Research) in Paris. "But (Supreme Leader) Khamenei will remain the ultimate decision-maker."
Even so, a win for the reformist-backed presidential candidate would be surprising in a race that most believed would go to candidates backed by Tehran's ruling clerics, who promised economic recovery in a country impacted by Western-imposed economic sanctions.
Rowhani has cleared 50% of the more than 12 million votes tallied, according to the Iranian Interior Ministry. That's well ahead of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who has about 15% and hardliner Mohsen Rezaei, who has nearly 13%. Three other candidates are trailing far behind.
Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters, and turnout in Friday's election was believed to be high. Rowhani's wide margin could be enough to give him an outright victory and avoid a two-person runoff at the end of next week.
In a sea of hardliners, a victory for Rowhani would be a win for reformist sentiment in Iran, observers say. During his candidacy, he attracted thousands to his rallies over his calls for an end to the repressive atmosphere prevailing in Iran - including the lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the economy and led to a spike in food and fuel prices - and his pledge to open the door to more individual liberties and better relations with the West.
"We won't let the past eight years go on," Rowhani told crowds attending a pre-election rally. "(President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration) brought sanctions for the country and they are proud of it. I'll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace, we will also reconcile with the world."
Still, even as his words lean liberal, Rowhani's background is firmly based in the political establishment of Iran.
A cleric, Rowhani first studied religion before graduating with a law degree in 1972, eventually earning a master's degree in law at Caledonian University in Glasgow, Scotland. He was swept up in the 1979 Iran's Islamic Revolution as a firm opponent to the shah and became an ally and part of the inner circle of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, serving in various roles in the government following Khomeini's ascension to power.
Regardless, some Iranians hold out hope that he will fulfill his promises due to his background as a skilled negotiator and conciliator. Rowhani served as head of the Supreme National Security Council during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997. Following that, he was the country's top nuclear negotiator with the West from 2003 to 2005 during the administration of reformist leader Mohammad Khatami as the U.S. and other European allies grew concerned over Iran's nuclear program. He negotiated a temporary suspension in Iran's uranium enrichment activities.
When hardliner Ahmadinejad - who is barred from seeking a third term - took office in 2005, Rowhani resigned after arguments with the new leader.
Since then, Rowhani has remained in the background of reformist causes until earlier this year when the Guardian Council approved his candidacy and he earned the backing of Khatami and Rafsanjani who represent the liberal strain of Iranian politics.
Some Iranians remain hopeful that a Rowhani win could sway Iran to become more open and liberal.
"It's a victory for those who are moderate and a ray of hope for those who are reformist," said Ali Sanaei, 37, an Iranian author and expatriate based in Istanbul.
However, others say that it doesn't change the power structure in which the country's ruling clerics - led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the military through the Revolutionary Guard - hold the real control.
Unlike in 2009, when reformist and opposition leaders challenged conservative leader Ahmadinejad's bid for second term in elections that saw massive protests and mass arrests, observers say that a Rowhani win is not a threat to Iran's current establishment.
Alireza Nourizadeh, a Iranian scholar, literary figure and senior researcher and director at the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says he doesn't buy into the Rohawni's spiel.
"He as always pretended to be a moderate, played the game really well and convinced voters he is a reformist by promising a different kind of conversation and behavior in the future," he said. "But I know this man - he's the same man that served in the Supreme National Military Council for 24 years and called for the execution of student protesters (during the 1999 protests)."