On Saturday the conservative Guardian Council rejected a call from the pro-reform interior ministry for postponing elections scheduled for 20 February. It also barred more sitting MPs from contesting the elections.

Stung by the Council's decisions, Iran's reformist President Muhammad Khatami admitted there was a stalemate.

"We have reached a deadlock with the Guardian Council," Khatami said.

"The government's efforts have gone nowhere. In more than half of the constituencies there is no competition," the pro-reform Interior Minister Abd al-Vahid Mussavi-Lari minister said.

"Therefore this election is not legitimate. As a matter of principle, we cannot hold this kind of election. The government has the right not to have the burden of organising an election that will not serve the interests of the country," he warned.

Khatami falls ill

Meanwhile, Iran's embattled Khatami has fallen ill with a bout of serious back pain, and has been forced to cancel all official engagements over the next few days, a close aide told AFP.

Khatami suffered a bout of back pain
after an offical event on Saturday

A top official in the president's office, who asked not be named, said that after a wreath-laying ceremony earlier on Saturday at the mausoleum of Iran's revolutionary leader Ayat Allah Ruh Allah Khomeini, the president "felt sick so he went home to rest."

"He has a history of serious back pain," the official said. "He will not be going to his office for the coming days."

The president's office said a emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Islamic republic's worsening political crisis had been cancelled, and that Khatami would not be attending the official opening of Tehran's new international airport on Sunday.

Political turmoil

The Islamic republic has been in turmoil ever since the Council, a right-wing bastion that screens all laws and candidates for elections, disqualified 3,605 out of the 8,157 prospective candidates.

The mass disqualification prompted reformists to cry foul, prompting many to demand that the polls be put off until the crisis is resolved.

"Therefore this election is not legitimate. As a matter of principle, we cannot hold this kind of election"

Abd al-Vahid Mussavi-Lari
Interior Minister, Iran

The interior ministry had called for a postponement of elections until the crisis was resolved.

But the Council is standing firm.

In rejecting the postponement proposal, the Council's head Ayat Allah Ahmad Janati insisted "the majority of Iranian people and candidates are seeking the organisation of an election with large participation."

"The matter of postponing the election was not accepted," Janati said.

More disqualifications

The Council also barred more incumbent MPs from contesting the elections after reexamining its controversial blacklist of candidates.

"The number has gone up from 83 to 87," the interior minister lamented.

After an appeals process, the Council has maintained its ban on nearly 2,500 candidates.

On the initial blacklist were 83 sitting MPs. On further scrutiny, the Council has permitted four MPs to contest but added seven new names to the blacklist.

The decision is sure to fuel the tussle between the hardliners and the reformists.

Reformists allege the hardliners are seeking to hijack the elections, by forcing out the reformers from the poll fray.