TEHRAN Aug 3 Iran's parliament approved President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's candidate as oil minister on Wednesday, putting a military commander who is under U.S. and EU sanctions in charge of oil and gas in one of the world's biggest crude producers.
A majority of lawmakers -- 216 of the 246 present -- voted for Rostam Qasemi, a Revolutionary Guards commander who headed its construction and engineering company, sending a defiant message to Iran's foes.
The vote also signaled an easing of parliament's hostility toward Ahmadinejad after months of accusing him of a power grab before a parliamentary election in March.
But critics said it would boost concern about the increasing influence of the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military force which has expanded its economic activities in recent years.
Ahmadinejad told parliament Qasemi was a "child of the revolution" with industrial as well as military experience.
"He comes to the oil ministry with the mastery and full knowledge of this industry and wants to transform this complex in line with national interests," Ahmadinejad said.
While many lawmakers voiced support for Qasemi, one parliamentarian said his appointment was worrying.
"The Revolutionary Guards, as a military power, should not get involved with political and economic power," Ali Motahari, a prominent conservative who is an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad, told the house.
"Unlike in neighboring countries where the military is withdrawing from the political arena, a reverse trend has started in our country which does not seem to be an auspicious sign."
In a rare intervention, Speaker Ali Larijani, also a critic of the president, spoke out for Qasemi.
"The Revolutionary Guards don't want to grab the country's politics," he said. "I ask you not to deprive the country of the services of the Revolutionary Guards."
He urged a strong show of support for Qasemi as a signal to Iran's foreign enemies: "So (they) do not think that when they impose sanctions parliament will pay any attention," he said.
"If he were an unsuccessful person then his name wouldn't be on the sanctions list," Larijani added.
Ahmadinejad, in an interview on the Euronews international news channel based in Lyon, France, said that Wednesday's vote in parliament was proof that "we have freedom here."
Qasemi comes from Khatam al-Anbia, the Guards' company initially set up to run infrastructure work after the eight-year war with Iraq that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
It has since carried out oil projects worth a total of $25 billion, the official news agency IRNA reported recently, quoting Ahmad Qalebani, managing director of the state National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC).
Qasemi's position there drew the attention of Western countries that say they believe the Revolutionary Guards and its affiliates are involved in Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies having any such goal.
The European Union put him on a sanctions list in July 2010, meaning he is not allowed to travel or hold assets in the EU. That echoed a similar U.S. measure five months earlier.
Far from hurting his chances, however, the sanctions further burnished Qasemi's credentials with parliament, as he told lawmakers at a hearing on Sunday: "The U.S. has imposed sanctions against me...and that country is not important."
The new minister will take over while Iran holds the largely symbolic rotating presidency of OPEC, where it has resisted the calls of more Western-friendly producers to increase output quotas.
It was not immediately clear if the EU sanctions would prevent him from traveling to OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Iran's nuclear energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani was able to attend a nuclear safety meeting in the Austrian capital in June, despite being under U.N. sanctions.
Qasemi's most important task will be to stem declining output from Iran's mature oil fields and develop gas resources suffering from sanctions restricting foreign investment.
"Regardless of the efforts of some countries, we will try to maintain Iran's status as OPEC's second oil producer," he told parliament.
Ahmadinejad proposed Qasemi after it became clear that a close ally he had installed as caretaker minister in June, Mohammad Aliabadi, was considered by many lawmakers to lack experience. He was also seen as too close to the president.
The post became vacant after Ahmadinejad sacked Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi in May, saying the move was merely part of a wider government restructuring which included merging the oil portfolio with the Energy Ministry that runs Iranian utilities.
But the sacking, and Ahmadinejad's initial decision to name himself caretaker minister, fueled criticism from rival factions within the conservative ruling elite that he was manoeuvring before the parliamentary election.
Since then, parliament has rejected two Ahmadinejad nominees to other ministerial posts and vetoed his plan to merge the oil and energy ministries.
A petition calling on Ahmadinejad to face questions in parliament [ID:nPOM734860] is still pending and some legislators have even talked openly of impeaching him.
But the chances of that happening diminished after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for an end to infighting [ID:nPOM459393] and established a committee to arbitrate in disputes between different parts of government.
"Between parliament and government there has to be free discussion all the time," Ahmadinejad said in the interview on Euronews, according to the French language translation of his interview that Reuters monitored.
"(And) the place of the supreme leader in Iran is very clear. There is no question of divergance. We're in a free society where everyone is free to express themselves. There's no problem," he said.
Parliament approved three other new ministers on Wednesday: labor, industry and sport.
(Additional reporting by Brian Love in Paris; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)