An Iranian cabinet minister said young people should be encouraged to get temporarily married, a practice unique to Shiite Islam, to avoid illicit extramarital sex, newspapers reported Saturday.

"We should expect violations and repercussions if we do not practically respond to young people's sexual needs," the centrist Kargozaran daily quoted interior minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as saying.

"Islam has solutions for all human problems and temporary marriage is a solution to this kind of problem," the minister, who is himself a cleric, was quoted as telling a conference in Iran's clerical capital of Qom.

Temporary marriage, known in Farsi as sigheh, is a contract that allows a man and a woman to be married for any period of time from just an hour to 99 years.

Pour-Mohammadi said Iran should seek to promote the practice with "boldness" and urged seminary scholars to study the matter and come up with ways to "execute God's command in society."

"We should not be afraid of promoting temporary marriages in a nation that is being governed by the rule of God."

Critics condemn sigheh as tantamount to prostitution, but clerics argue it is merely a more spiritual way of addressing basic human urges.

Sixty percent of Iran's population is under 30 years of age and the average age of marriage has risen to 30 for men and 26 for women, according to unofficial estimates.

Under the sharia, or Islamic law, in force in Iran since the 1979 revolution, extramarital sex is prohibited and punishable by flogging or stoning.

Sigheh has also been cited as a possible solution to a sharp increase in street prostitution in Iran in recent years.