TEHRAN, Iran -- President Mohammad Khatami, suffering severe back pain, called off an emergency Cabinet meeting Saturday that was to deal with Iran's deepening crisis over parliamentary elections.
Earlier in the day, the pro-reform president had suggested his government would not go ahead with the Feb. 20 vote, which he called undemocratic because hard-line Islamic clerics have disqualified more than 2,400 liberal candidates.
"My government will only hold competitive and free elections ... the parliament must represent the views of the majority and include all (political) tendencies," Khatami said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Hours later, doctors confined Khatami to his home for treatment of what a senior presidential aide told The Associated Press was a longtime back problem exacerbated by stress.
Iran's main reformist party was swift to emphasize that the president's ailment would not slow its moves to protest a vote it considers a sham. The Islamic Iran Participation Front has called a meeting Monday and is expected to announce a boycott of the polls.
Nearly all of the Front's candidates have been barred from running in the election -- some of them sitting lawmakers, including party chief and deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami, also the president's brother.
The furor over the vote -- Iran's biggest political crisis in years -- started when the 12 clerics of the unelected but powerful Governing Council disqualified more than 3,600 of the 8,200 people who filed papers to stand for election.
After reformists' complaints, the council relented and announced the restoration of 1,160 lower-profile candidates late Friday, the deadline for appeals or other changes to the ballot. But the 2,400 prominent reformist politicians and party leaders are still disqualified.
The Guardian Council claims the barred candidates lacked the criteria to stand for office, even 80 already in parliament. Only Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hand-picks most of the clerics on the council, can overrule its decisions.
Reformists called Friday's action cosmetic. They accuse the clerics of trying to sway the vote to regain control of the 290-seat parliament, which they lost four years ago for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Hard-liners have repeatedly thwarted Khatami's efforts toward greater democracy and a relaxation of the Islamic social code.
"There is no possibility of competitive, free and fair elections," Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari said Saturday, according to IRNA. "We don't consider this election as legitimate."
Lari had urged the clerics to postpone the vote, but the Guardian Council rejected that Friday. While the interior ministry organizes elections, the council has an overriding, supervisory power over them.
With the vote three weeks away, Khatami appeared to have two options. He could challenge the Guardian Council by including all disqualified candidates on the ballot.
His other option -- refusing to hold elections -- would leave voting in the hands of hard-liners most likely relying on elite Revolutionary Guards and supporting military forces to organize the polls.
The election crisis came as the nation marked the 25th anniversary of the revolution that swept to power the anti-American, hard-line clerics who rule alongside the government.
Khatami stated his concerns about the ballot after he and his Cabinet visited the mausoleum of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the uprising that toppled U.S. ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as part of annual anniversary commemorations.
He had called a special Cabinet meeting for later Saturday but canceled it because of his back problem, a senior official in Khatami's office told AP.
The president had a slipped disc a few years ago, and the official said stress had worsened his condition. "The president has had a back problems for a long time but, due to the pressure of the election dispute, he was unable to hold an emergency meeting today," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Khatami's elder daughter, Leila Khatami, said her father once was hospitalized for heart pain, but doctors told him he had no heart problem. She said she had not seen the president Saturday but did not think he had suffered heart pain.