- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

TEHRAN — Iran’s hard-line leadership ruled out allowing women to run for president in June elections, denying reports in the state-run media yesterday 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 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 as saying the council had changed its long-standing policy and allowed women to run.

But in the evening, the media reported Mr. 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 Mr. Elham’s initial comments correctly and that 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. Mr. Elham could not be reached immediately 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.

The June 17 election is a major opportunity for hard-liners to take back the presidency, since reformist incumbent Mohammed Khatami is barred from running for a third consecutive term in the post. Swept into office in 1997 on a wave of popularity, Mr. Khatami has lost much support as the reformist movement failed to bring about its goals.

Women are allowed to vote in Iran and run for positions in parliament — and they were a large base of support for Mr. Khatami and the reform movement.

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, the predominant language in Iran.

For 25 years, the Guardian Council has rejected women as candidates on the basis of the “male” interpretation.

Initially, state-run media reported Mr. Elham as 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 Mr. Elham as saying.

Later, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency carried a report saying Mr. 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.

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