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Iran approves most of Cabinet

Ahmadinejad given backing for top choices

Female nominees (from left) Susan Keshavarz as education minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastgerdi as health minister, and Fatemeh Ajorlu as welfare and social security minister, stood at a press briefing in Tehran yesterday. Only Dastgerdi was confirmed. Female nominees (from left) Susan Keshavarz as education minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastgerdi as health minister, and Fatemeh Ajorlu as welfare and social security minister, stood at a press briefing in Tehran yesterday. Only Dastgerdi was confirmed. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)
By Ali Akbar Dareini and Sebastian Abbot
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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TEHRAN - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a broad mandate yesterday as parliament backed his main Cabinet choices - naming the first woman minister since the 1979 Islamic Revolution but showing international defiance by supporting a suspected mastermind in the bombing of an Argentine Jewish center that killed 85 people.

The conservative-dominated legislature rejected Ahmadinejad’s choice for energy minister and two other women nominated for less prominent posts. The rest of his 21-member Cabinet, including Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi as health minister, was approved.

The broad backing was somewhat stronger than many in Iran had expected because even some of the president’s fellow conservatives had criticized him for nominating people they called unqualified. Ahmadinejad is also under fire for the abuse of protesters detained following the disputed June presidential election, which the opposition says he stole with massive vote fraud.

Analysts said parliament’s strong support could indicate that despite differences among conservatives, they believe it is better to present a fairly united front as Iran faces possible harsher international sanctions over its nuclear program and continued pressure from reformists at home.

The most defiant message parliament sent was its overwhelming support for Ahmad Vahidi as defense minister. He is wanted over charges of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires.

Vahidi was the commander of a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force at the time of the attack and is one of five prominent Iranians sought by Argentina in the bombing.

Lawmakers chanted “Allahu Akbar, or “God is great,’’ as parliament speaker Ali Larijani announced the vote for Vahidi. Among the 286 lawmakers who attended, Vahidi received 227 votes - the most of any of the proposed ministers.

Jose Scaliter, vice president of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, told Argentina’s Jewish News Agency yesterday that Vahidi’s approval “is an absolute shame.’’

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters yesterday that the United States had been hoping Iran would take a “fresh approach’’ and be willing to engage the world.

“We find today’s action disturbing, and, for Iran, it is sending precisely the wrong message,’’ he said, adding that “Iran is taking a step backward’’ with the appointment of the defense minister.

Crowley added that the United States supports Argentina’s efforts to bring justice to the perpetrators of the bombing.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor also criticized it, saying it “is more proof of the violent nature of the regime and a total disregard of the need to work with the international community.’’

Interpol issued a “red notice’’ for Vahidi in 2007, placing him on the equivalent of its most wanted list. An Interpol spokeswoman said yesterday that the notice will still be valid even if Vahidi travels on a diplomatic passport. She spoke on condition of anonymity according to Interpol’s standard policy.

Shortly before the Cabinet vote, Ahmadinejad told parliament that Western countries he accuses of stoking postelection unrest deserve “a crushing response from lawmakers to disappoint them.’’

President Obama has stepped up diplomatic engagement with Iran to reduce international tension, but the turmoil and allegations of Western interference have hampered the effort. The United States and its European allies have given Iran until the end of September to agree to nuclear talks or face harsher sanctions. They are worried that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, offered an opening for possible compromise with the West on Tuesday, saying Iran would present new proposals and would be ready to open talks to ease international concerns.

But Ahmadinejad was defiant yesterday, saying “no one can impose sanctions on Iran anymore.’’

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi also took a tough stance, saying Iran would not bend to Western deadlines set by “threat and pressure.’’