Four months ahead of Iran's presidential election, the absence of a clear challenger to face incumbent Hassan Rohani has led to talk that the gray-bearded clerics who dominate Iran's opaque system might bet on a woman.
The political and religious leadership that emerged from the 1979 revolution has so far excluded women from the running for a handful of the most senior posts, including the presidency.
With independent polling nearly nonexistent in Iran, it's unclear whether a conservative establishment that gives a woman half the legal standing of a man might actually rally behind a female candidate for president in the May vote.
But the tactic could signal an effort to fracture the power base that swept the reformist Rohani to power nearly four years ago in part on pledges to chip away at legally based gender discrimination.
Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was the first postrevolutionary female minister and one of fewer than a dozen women to serve in an Iranian cabinet, running the Health Ministry from 2009-13 under hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The 58-year-old Vahid Dastjerdi was recently appointed as an adviser to Iran's fiercely reactionary judiciary.
She has been quoted as saying talk of her imminent candidacy are "untrue." But it is arguably a tantalizing political prospect.
"[Vahid Dastjerdi] lacks charisma, but she could be a good rival for Rohani," Parvaneh Salahshuri, a relative moderate who heads the women's faction in the Iranian parliament, was quoted by the semiofficial news agency ISNA as saying. "For me as a woman, there's no difference between a hard-liner or a reformist. I welcome whoever promotes the status of women."
"It doesn't make any difference to us if the candidate is a woman or a man," hard-line lawmaker Hossein Naghavi was quoted as saying earlier this month, "the main issue for the hard-liners is to enter the race with a single candidate."
Naghavi, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, noted that election supervisors at Iran's Guardians Council would need to issue the green light for women to be able to run in the presidential race. But "if those issues are resolved, then there's nothing wrong with a woman being the candidate," he said.
Could A Woman Even Run?
A spokesman for the Guardians Council set rumor mills abuzz in December by suggesting that women could apply as candidates but that the council might disqualify them over a clause in the Iranian Constitution that limits eligibility to religious and political "rejal." The word comes from Arabic and roughly translates as "distinguished men" or, under some interpretations, "personalities." Some argue that "rejal" includes women, but the Guardians Council has ruled in the past for a masculine interpretation.
Some domestic media outlets, including the reformist daily Arman and the moderately conservative KhabarOnline, have suggested that Vahid Dastjerdi could become the hard-liners' choice.
The conservative Tabnak responded with an unsigned commentary asking "what aims are behind the spread of rumors" by reformists seemingly aimed at "introducing candidates on behalf of the principlists" -- a reference to an ideologically rigid camp of Iranian conservatives.
Women who have sought to run in the past, including conservatives, have been disqualified by the Guardians Council based on the "rejal" clause.
Berlin-based Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi tells RFE/RL that he doubts the councilors will change their tune. "The presence of women in important political posts has always been a red line for conservative clerics," he says. "[I] doubt that the Guardians Council would be willing to cross one of its red lines, even with the goal of splitting Rohani's votes."
Islamic law as applied in Iran since the revolution denies women equal rights in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas. Women need the permission of their father or husband to travel. A woman's testimony in court is considered to be half the value of a man's. And women's divorce rights are significantly weaker than those of men.
Women are also banned from attending major men's sporting events.
Many Opinions On Vahid Dastjerdi
Vahid Dastjerdi is a trained gynecologist and two-term parliament deputy who has in the past backed conservative causes including the gender segregation of health facilities and diminished rights for women in the event of divorce.
She was dismissed as health minister following a public disagreement with then-President Ahmadinejad in 2013.
Last month, she became the spokeswoman of a new conservative political group called the Popular Front of the Forces of the Islamic Revolution. Speaking at a January 15 press conference, Vahid Dastjerdi said the group's main aim was to create "unity" among "revolutionary forces" -- a code word for conservatives -- and then produce a candidate who would preserve such unity.
She cited economic problems, unemployment, and "astronomical salaries" among the country's most pressing problems.
Talk of a Vahid Dastjerdi candidacy has led to debate in Iranian social media, with some welcoming it as a move that could shatter a glass ceiling.
"Dastjerdi's most important plus is in that Ahmadinejad is among the people by whom she was fired and that's considered an honor and a plus in Iranian society," one Twitter user said.
Others warned against her hard-line stances.
"Marzeh Datsjerdi is among those who proposed a bill to segregate men and women at hospitals and she's been against Iran joining the [Convention] on The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women," another user tweeted.
Another user dismissed the rumors about Vahid Dastverdi as a ploy by the Islamic establishment to encourage citizens to vote in May. "In order to push people to vote, authorities [could] even bring Jennifer Lopez to fool people," the user said.
Rohani's 2013 presidential victory was followed by a return to parliament for his reformist and independent allies in early 2016, although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word on all political and religious matters in Iran.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.