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 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 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 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, speaking on condition of anonymity. Elham could not be reached immediately for comment.
The council is a body dominated by hardliners 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, 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 hardliners 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 US and European criticism over a lack of democracy in Iran.