Scandal, Fistfight Erupt Over Impeachment Move in Iran

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

TEHRAN, Nov. 3 -- A move to impeach an Iranian minister, slated for Tuesday, has flared into a full-blown political scandal after an attempt to bribe lawmakers over the matter led to a fistfight between supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, in turn, says parliament is out to sabotage his cabinet ahead of elections in June.

Speaking on state television Monday, the president called the impeachment bid "not legal" and "unfair." Ahmadinejad is firmly backing Interior Minister Ali Kordan, who has been accused of dishonesty for falsely claiming to hold an honorary law degree from Oxford University. Kordan says Oxford's representative in Tehran lied to him.

An impeachment of Kordan would push Ahmadinejad close to having to submit his entire cabinet for review by parliament, which is led by one of his chief political opponents. Iran's constitution requires that step if more than half the cabinet ministers are replaced, and Ahmadinejad has replaced nine of 21.

The dispute over Kordan's fake degree triggered a fistfight last week when the director of the presidential liaison office in parliament, Mohammad Abbasi, handed out checks for $5,000 to lawmakers who signed a letter stating that they would not vote for the impeachment.

When lawmaker Ali Asghar Zarei confronted Abbasi, a fight broke out in which the presidential liaison was injured. Zarei is regarded as one of Ahmadinejad's most loyal supporters in parliament.

"Collecting these signatures was against morality," Zarei said later, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. "I confronted him to prevent violations and wrongdoings that are contrary to the policy of the government."

On Sunday, Ahmadinejad fired Abbasi, and the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, banned him permanently from the parliament building. Ahmadinejad said on state television that his aide had acted "emotionally."

"The bribing is even worse than the whole affair of Kordan's fake degree," lawmaker Ali Akbar Owlia wrote Sunday in the Tehran newspaper Ettemaad.

The public disputes over Kordan's impeachment highlighted the rift developing here between supporters and former supporters of Ahmadinejad as the campaign for the June 12 presidential elections starts shaping up.

"The impeachment of Ali Kordan will be the splitting point between the government and its supporters in parliament," the Web site Aftabnews, which is critical of the president, said Monday.

More than half of parliament's 290 members must vote in favor of impeachment for the interior minister to be removed.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company