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Iran Approves First Female Minister

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TEHRAN, Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a broad mandate Thursday 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 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 unqualified ministers. Ahmadinejad is also under fire for the abuse of protesters detained following the disputed June presidential election, which the pro-reform opposition claims 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.

Argentina on Thursday called it an affront to Argentine justice and to the 85 victims of the attack.

"We reiterate once again that his confirmation as defense minister merits the most energetic condemnation from the government of our country," said a spokesman for foreign minister Jorge Taiana, who was traveling in India Thursday. They spoke on condition of anonymity according to ministry rules.

Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association president Guillermo Borger told the AP that Vahidi's confirmation "is a cruel joke aimed at AMIA, at the Jewish collective, at society, at the government and at all Argentina. More than that, it's a cruel joke at the world..."

In 2008, President Cristina Fernandez called on the suspects to face Argentina's justice system, which she said would treat them fairly.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday 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 Thursday 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 Barack 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 U.S. 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 – a claim 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 as defiant as ever Thursday, saying "no one can impose sanctions on Iran anymore."

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

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will continue in his post in Ahmadinejad's second term. Parliament also endorsed the president's nominees in key posts heading the interior, intelligence and oil ministries.

Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist with the Washington-based RAND Corp., said he believed conservative lawmakers rallied around Ahmadinejad because of growing foreign pressure and the continuing postelection turmoil.

"This is not a good time for the conservatives to engage in their squabbles," said Nader. "It is better for them to stand at least somewhat united in the face of external and internal pressures and form a government that is able to function under adverse circumstances."

But Nader said significant differences remained between Ahmadinejad and other conservative factions.

Some of those differences were apparent in the vote over the three women who Ahmadinejad proposed as Cabinet ministers. Lawmakers approved a 50-year-old gynecologist, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, as health minister but rejected his nominees to head the education and welfare and social security ministries.

"With a woman in the Cabinet, women have achieved their long-awaited dream," said Dastjerdi after she was approved.

Some conservatives have criticized Ahmadinejad for elevating women to the Cabinet. Last month, the Emrouz newspaper quoted Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, a member of the parliament's judiciary committee, as saying there were "religious doubts" over how women would cope with the positions.

Women's rights activists have criticized Ahmadinejad's appointments as a desperate ploy to improve his popularity rather than a true interest in promoting women's rights. Since coming to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad has cracked down hard on women activists.

Dastjerdi is the first female minister since Education Minister Farrokhroo Parsay, who served in the 1970s but was executed for corruption shortly after Islamic clerics seized power in the 1979 revolution.

____

Abbot reported from Cairo. Associated Press Writer Michael Warren contributed to this report from Buenos Aires.

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