Aug 20, 2:32 PM EDT

Iran's parliament dismisses moderate minister


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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- In a move led by hard-line lawmakers, Iran's parliament dismissed the country's science minister Wednesday over his alleged support for pro-Western voices at universities, dealing a blow to moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

The no-confidence vote against Science, Research and Technology Minister Reza Faraji Dana was a sharp rebuke of Rouhani, who was elected last year on promises of greater openness and diplomatic engagement with the West.

The vote was also the first time a minister in Rouhani's Cabinet was impeached. Out of 270 lawmakers who were present at the session, 145 voted to oust Dana, 110 voted to keep him on and 15 abstained. The chamber has 290 seats.

Ahead of the vote, Rouhani - who was on a provincial tour in northwestern Iran - called on lawmakers to reaffirm their confidence in the science minister.

"I really wish I could be there in parliament, next to the polite and knowledgeable minister ... and support this serving scientist," Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television.

The conservative lawmakers were apparently irked by Dana's support for teachers seen as pro-Western or those who were involved in opposition rallies following the disputed 2009 presidential election that gave Rouhani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. They also accused Dana of tolerating student publications that question Islamic teachings.

Dana's ouster underscored the growing political rift between Rouhani and his hard-line opponents in parliament who accuse him of giving ground to pro-Western voices in the name of moderation.

Hard-liners are also opposed to an interim nuclear deal that Rouhani's government signed with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany last year, saying he gave too many concessions in return for too little. After the interim deal last November, some of the U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed over Iran's controversial nuclear program were lifted.

Wednesday's dramatic impeachment was the most direct attack by the conservative-dominated parliament against Rouhani's government.

Dana's critics accuse him of mismanagement, rehiring professors kicked out of universities for "moral or security reasons" and allegedly inciting students to riot.

Conservative lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani told the house that Dana brought back "incompetent elements to universities and gave permission to student publications that promote separatism, sedition and riots."

He also accused Dana of re-hiring a professor dismissed over an incident in which three female students committed suicide over the professor's alleged sexual advances.

Lawmaker Hossein Naqavi Hosseini said universities were "pregnant with sedition" and on the verge of new riots because Dana allowed in pro-Western and extremist reformists. He accused Dana of "defending criminals" who claimed fraud in the 2009 election.

Dana failed to cool his critics, even after promising he would "correct" some of his "mistakes."

"I am ready to use the lawmakers' friendly advice. ... This is the path to reformation," he told the house.

Prominent political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam indicated that the impeachment also shifts the balance in parliament further toward the hard-liners, since they were not alone in ousting Dana.

"Some of those who voted against Dana were moderate conservatives who broke ranks with fellow allies and sided with the hard-liners," said Zibakalam.

Another analyst, Davoud Hermidas Bavand, said Dana's impeachment was a warning to Rouhani from the hard-liners.

"If Rouhani doesn't react strongly, he will have to surrender to the hard-liners," Bavand said.

After the vote, Rouhani immediately appointed Dana as adviser on science and education and named a close associate, Mohammad Ali Najafi, as caretaker science minister.

The president has three months to name a new minister and submit his nomination to parliament for approval.

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