TEHRAN (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s proposed new cabinet came in for criticism from some lawmakers in a heated parliamentary debate on Sunday, but one senior MP signaled support for the surprise oil minister nominee.
The 290-member assembly must approve the hardline president’s ministerial candidates and the outcome is seen as a test of his grip on power in Iran, the world’s fifth-largest crude exporter, after his disputed re-election in June.
Parliament is expected to vote on the cabinet line-up on Wednesday and some deputies have said they are likely to reject several nominees due to their lack of experience.
Analysts say a stormy debate in parliament, less than three months after the election which plunged Iran into its deepest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution, could damage Ahmadinejad politically.
“It is a weak cabinet ... we see that some proposed ministers without any experience in that ministry have been placed at the top of it,” said MP Ali Motahari.
Another conservative critic of Ahmadinejad, who had a sometimes turbulent relationship with the legislature during his first term, questioned the nomination of current Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar as new interior minister.
“Is it in the interest of the country to appoint a military man to the most political ministry? ... Would it help heal the divisions in the society?” asked MP Ahmad Tavakoli.
Other deputies voiced their support for the 21-member proposed cabinet, which includes the surprise nomination of Commerce Minister Massoud Mirkazemi as oil minister, a key post as crude sales account for most state revenue.
Mirkazemi has little known oil sector experience but is seen as an ally of Ahmadinejad, who praised him as a skilled manager.
“Mirkazemi is regarded as an appropriate choice to head the Oil Ministry,” IRNA news agency quoted Hassan Ghafourifard, a member of parliament’s presiding board, as saying.
In 2005, the president failed to get his first three choices for oil minister appointed because of parliament’s opposition.
The new oil minister faces the challenge of boosting oil and gas output under U.S. and U.N. sanctions, imposed because of a dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The West suspects Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons while Iran says its program is exclusively for peaceful power generation.
Ahmadinejad told parliament he planned “important steps forward” during his second four-year term, including developing the downstream oil sector and promoting social equality.
He said Iran “should have constructive interaction with all nations and countries with the exception of the illegal Zionist entity,” referring to Israel.
That turn of phrase may be seen as leaving a possible opening toward Iran’s other arch-foe, the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s offer of engagement with Iran if it “unclenched its fist” ran into trouble after Tehran accused Western nations of inciting the opposition protests.
But the semi-official Fars News Agency, citing an informed source, suggested the government would study the “consequences, benefits and drawbacks” of any relations with Washington.
“Iran has encouraged the new U.S. administration to avoid sloganeering and instead adhere to the policy of change in its relations,” the source told Fars.
Parliament is dominated by conservatives, but some of Ahmadinejad’s supporters have abandoned him since the election, even though he enjoys the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority.
The president’s moderate foes say the June 12 election, which was followed by large opposition protests, was rigged in his favor and regard the government as illegitimate.
The authorities deny the vote was fraudulent.
The proposed cabinet includes three women ministers, for the posts of education, health and social welfare. They would be the first female ministers in the conservative Islamic Republic.
Separately, Iran’s new judiciary chief late on Saturday replaced a hardline prosecutor who played a key role in the mass trials of leading reformers arrested over post-election unrest.
In another move that may be welcomed by moderates, the IRNA news agency said judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani had ordered a probe into allegations by pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi that some opposition protesters were raped in jail.
Writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Jon Boyle