TEHRAN - Some senior clerics want Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reconsider the nomination of three women as ministers in his new government, a conservative lawmaker was quoted as saying on Saturday.

The comments by Mohammad-Taqi Rahbar, who heads the clerics' faction in the assembly, further underlined the difficulties the hardline president could face in securing parliamentary support for his proposed cabinet line-up.

The outcome will be a test of Ahmadinejad's hold on power after his disputed re-election in June led to the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and exposed establishment divisions. At least 26 people were killed in street protests.

Parliament must approve his ministerial candidates and vice speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar has already warned that up to fine members of the 21-strong cabinet risk being voted down.

Another senior deputy, the head of parliament's energy commission, expressed concern about the proposed oil minister's qualifications and warned of irreversible damage to the industry, a newspaper reported on Saturday.

The legislature is dominated by conservatives, but some of Ahmadinejad's backers have abandoned him since the election, even though he enjoys the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's highest authority. Moderates see Ahmadinejad's next government as illegitimate.

The president's cabinet list, submitted to parliament on Wednesday, has also created controversy abroad.

Argentina's Foreign Ministry condemned the nomination of Ahmad Vahidi as defence minister, saying it was an affront to the victims of a 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people died.

Argentina accuses Vahidi of involvement in planning the attack. Iran has repeatedly denied any link to the bombing. Vahidi is deputy defence minister in the outgoing government.

Ahmadinejad also nominated women as ministers for health, social welfare and education -- the first female ministers in the conservative Islamic Republic.

But Rahbar said many senior clerics have doubts about choosing female ministers and want Ahmadinejad to reconsider, Iran's English-language Press TV reported on its website.


Rahbar cited religious uncertainties surrounding the limits of women's abilities and their management.

Friday prayer leaders in the cities of Mashhad and Isfahan also criticised the choice of women ministers, Press TV said.

The move appeared to be an attempt by Ahmadinejad to boost support among women. But one rights activist said the nominees were conservatives and unlikely to promote female rights.

Ahmadinejad's moderate opponents campaigned ahead of the June election on the need to enhance women's position in Iran.
Campaigners say Iranian women face institutionalized discrimination, for example in divorce and child custody.

In another surprise nomination, Ahmadinejad put forward current Commerce Minister Massoud Mirkazemi as new oil minister, a key post as Iran is the world's fifth-largest crude exporter.

An industrial engineer, Mirkazemi has little known experience from the oil industry. He is seen as an ally of Ahmadinejad, who has praised him as a skilled manager.

But Hamid Reza Katouzian, a conservative who heads parliament's energy commission, made clear his view that Mirkazemi lacked the right background for the top oil job, in comments reported by the Mehr News Agency on Friday.

Any person unfamiliar with this field who would step into this ministry would need at least two years to get familiar with its rudimentary concepts ... and during this period there would be irreversible damage to the industry, he said.

In 2005, the president failed to get his first three choices for oil minister appointed because of parliament's opposition.

The next minister faces the challenge of boosting oil and gas output under U.S. and U.N. sanctions, imposed because of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The West suspects Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the charge.

Iran arrested thousands of people during mass protests that erupted after June's presidential election, which the moderate opposition says was rigged to secure Ahmadinejad's re-election. He says he won a fair vote.

Hundreds, including prominent reformists, remain in jail.

Pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi, who came fourth in the vote, has angered hardliners by saying some detainees were raped and abused -- a charge rejected by the authorities.

His party on Saturday quoted the wife of a detained journalist and analyst, Ahmad Zeidabadi, as saying he had become delirious after being kept 35 days in solitary confinement.

He is asking anyone with a conscience to come to his rescue, his wife, Mahdiyeh Mohammadi, said.

(Additional reporting by Buenos Aires bureau; Editing by Jon Boyle)