"An overnight emergency meeting of the cabinet unanimously agreed to support a call by the Interior Ministry to postpone elections," Abd Allah Ramezanzadeh told AP on Monday. "The cabinet also agreed not to hold elections that are not competitive, fair and free."
 
Iran's powerful, hardline Guardian Council ultimately decides when an election is held. However, the government's position strengthens the hand of reformists demanding a boycott over mass Council disqualifications of liberals seeking office.
 
Hardliners may have to resort to extraordinary measures - perhaps even relying on the elite revolutionary guards and other armed forces - simply to hold elections on 20 February as scheduled.

President Muhammad Khatami, who has been confined to his home due to a severe back pain, did not attend the meeting. Instead, the cabinet meeting was chaired by First Vice-President Muhammad Reza Arif, Ramezanzadeh said.

Conditions non-existent

The decision was made after Interior Minister Abd al-Vahed Mousavi Lari presented a report saying conditions for free elections did not exist.

Khatami did not attend Monday's
emergency meeting

Five ministers, who were assigned last week to reach a compromise with the Guardian Council over disqualifications, told the Cabinet their efforts had failed.

Reformists accuse the Council of disqualifying liberals to fix the election in favour of conservatives. The Council denies political motives, arguing the disqualified did not meet legal criteria to stand for election.

But more than 80 of the disqualified were sitting lawmakers who had been vetted in the past. They resigned on Sunday.

The furor began in early January when the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayat Allah Ali Khamenei, disqualified more than 3600 of the 8200 people who filed papers to run in the polls. After protests and an opinion from Khamenei, the council restored 1160 low-profile candidates to the list on Friday.