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Cabinet approval lets Iran focus on nuclear issue

Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad

Cabinet approval lets Iran focus on nuclear issue

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EHRAN – Iran’s parliament approved most of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet ministers, including the first woman, on Thursday, bolstering the hardline president as he deals with an international dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

In addition to the Islamic Republic’s first female minister, the assembly backed a relative novice as oil minister and installed as defence minister a man wanted by Argentina for an attack on a Jewish centre in 1994.

“All those who act against Iran will face the iron fist of the Iranian government, nation and armed forces,” Ahmad Vahidi, the new defence minister, said. Like several other ministers, he has a background with the elite Revolutionary Guards, whose influence appears to have grown since Ahmadinejad came to power.

Vahidi’s nomination as defence minister has been condemned by Argentina, which accuses him of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish centre that killed 85 people. Tehran has repeatedly denied any link to the attack.

“Death to Israel,” lawmakers chanted after Vahidi received the highest number of votes in favour of all nominees, 227.

Deputies rejected three of the 21 new ministers Ahmadinejad proposed following his disputed re-election in June.

But that signalled only a limited setback for the president, who had four of his first-choice nominees vetoed by the legislature four years ago. His new government will hold its first meeting on Sunday, state radio reported.

“Ahmadinejad is able to have a cabinet that is working and do what he wants to put into practice,” said Baqer Moin, a London-based Iran analyst.

The presidential election was followed by huge opposition protests, plunging Iran into its deepest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It exposed deepening establishment rifts and further strained ties with the West.

The legislature is dominated by conservatives, but some of Ahmadinejad’s supporters have abandoned him since the poll.

The moderate opposition says the election was rigged in his favour and regard the new government as illegitimate. The authorities deny the June 12 vote was fraudulent.

Crucially for Ahmadinejad, heavyweight nominees such as the intelligence, defence, interior, oil, economy and foreign ministers were all confirmed by parliament. The three rejected were the proposed energy, welfare and education ministers, including two of his three women nominees.

Activists have described the proposed female ministers as conservatives who have not promoted women’s rights in the past.

NUCLEAR DEFIANCE

Ahmadinejad said a “new era of constructive cooperation” had started between the government and parliament, which at times had a stormy relationship during his first four-year term.

He has already signalled tougher foreign policies ahead, after Tehran accused its Western foes of inciting the post-election protests. The opposition says 72 people were killed in the unrest, more than double the official estimate.

Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi received the lowest support of the approved ministers. Crude sales account for most state revenue in Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter.

Like several other nominees, the former commerce minister had been criticised for alleged lack of experience. He faces the challenge of boosting oil and gas output under U.S. and U.N. sanctions, imposed because of a row over Iran’s nuclear work.

The West suspects Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs while Iran says its programme is for peaceful power generation.

Analyst Moin said he had heard the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority and in charge of the nuclear issue, had contacted lawmakers before Thursday’s vote.

“His bigger fight is the nuclear issue and if he is seen as being weak internally he will have more problems with that as well. So he has put all his efforts into convincing the conservatives … that we need to show unity both for internal and external reasons,” Moin said.

U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran until later in September to take up an offer of international talks on trade if it shelves nuclear enrichment or face harsher penalties.

Ahmadinejad dismissed any threat of new sanctions against Iran, a day after six world powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France and Germany — pressed Tehran to meet them this month for talks on the nuclear dispute.

“No one can impose any sanctions on Iran any longer,” he told reporters at parliament, according to IRNA news agency.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was quoted by state television this week as saying Iran was ready to talk to the major powers and that Tehran had prepared “an updated nuclear proposal” that would be presented soon.

But another senior official suggested that any such discussions would not address Iran’s nuclear work, but instead focus on unspecified international and regional issues.

Ali Ansari of the University of St Andrews in Scotland said he was not surprised by the outcome of parliament’s vote as hardliners control most official levers of power in Iran.

“I think Iran is operating on two levels at the moment, a surreal government structure trying to project an air of business as usual and a growing disenfranchised and angry majority,” Ansari said.

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