TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's hard-line leadership ruled out allowing women to run for president in June elections, denying reports in the state-run media Saturday that it had decided to allow female candidates for the first time.
It was not clear whether the denial meant the hard-line Guardian Council (search) was reversing itself or whether the earlier announcement was a mistake.
Throughout the day, state-run radio and television carried reports quoting council spokesman Gholamhossein Elham (search) as saying the council had changed its long-standing policy and allowed women to run.
But in the evening, the media reported Elham denied the new stance.
"The Guardian Council's previous opinion has not changed," he was quoted as saying.
An official from the television's political department defended the state-run media outlets, saying they had reported Elham's initial comments correctly and it was the spokesman who had backtracked.
"It was Elham who changed his story. In both cases we were correct and did our job correctly," the official said on condition of anonymity. Elham could not be reached for comment.
The council is a body dominated by hard-liners in Iran's Islamic regime who have resisted reformers' drive for years to loosen social and political restrictions in the country — including women's rights.
Saeed Shariati, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (search), the country's largest pro-reform movement, said Elham appeared to have been taking back his word "under political pressure" from conservative Shiite clerics with influence over the government.
"Although high (election) turnout is of paramount importance to Iran's top leaders, the Guardian Council cannot resist pressures from traditionalist clerics who oppose gender equality," Shariati said.
The June 17 election is a major opportunity for hard-liners to take back the presidency, since reformist incumbent Mohammad Khatami is barred from running for a third consecutive term in the post. Brought into office in 1997 on a wave of popularity, Khatami has lost much support as the reformist movement failed to bring about its goals.
The initial announcement that women would be allowed to run brought immediate praise from pro-reform movements, including women's rights and student organizations. There was speculation that conservatives were trying to court reformers, ensure a wide turnout in the election to show its legitimacy or to fend of U.S. and European criticism over a lack of democracy in Iran.
"Even the initial endorsement by the council's spokesman has to be interpreted as short-lived victory for women in Iran's male-dominated society, despite the fact that at the end it was a disappointment," said Sara Irani, an Iranian lawyer and women's rights activist.
The question of whether women can run for president hinges on a long debated question over phrasing in the constitution, which says the president must be elected from among political "rijal." That Arabic word means literally "men" but can be interpreted simply as political personalities regardless of their gender. Many Arabic words have been incorporated into Farsi.
For 25 years, the Guardian Council has rejected women as candidates on the basis of the "male" interpretation.
Initially, state-run media reported Elham saying the council's stance had changed. "The word "rijal" doesn't negate gender," he was quoted as saying. If they meet the age, nationality and other guidelines set for men, "women can also run for president," the television quoted Elham as saying.
Later, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency carried a report saying Elham had rejected the statement attributed to him earlier. The agency report added that the Guardian Council believes the term "rijal" refers solely to men.
Women are allowed to vote in Iran and run for parliament positions — and they were a large base of support for Khatami and the reform movement.
The initial announcement had brought hopes among some that that the council was trying to redeem itself after last year's parliamentary elections.
In that ballot, the council disqualified more than 2,000 reformist candidates, effectively barring reformers from the assembly. The move led to a low turnout and reformists denounced the vote a "historical fiasco."
Hard-liners gained control of the parliament in that election, fueling the decline of the reform movement.