TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's parliament sacked the interior minister on Tuesday in a blow to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of next year's presidential election.
MPs voted overwhelmingly to remove Ali Kordan, whose job is crucial in organising the 2009 race, accusing him of forging his degree from Britain's Oxford University.
His impeachment was part of a power struggle between hardline backers of Ahmadinejad and his opponents including reformers and moderate conservatives who blame the government for the failing economy, political analysts said.
Kordan last month admitted holding a fake degree from Oxford although he said he had been duped.
Signatories to the impeachment motion said Kordan could no longer be trusted as interior minister, a post that would put him directly in charge of the June 2009 presidential election.
After six hours of heated debate, 188 of the 247 parliamentarians present voted to unseat Kordan, citing "lack of honesty in submitting educational credentials" and "deceiving lawmakers with an invalid certificate". They comfortably met the majority required.
"From today, Kordan can no longer be the minister," said Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race.
"Parliament showed it is determined to preserve people's rights," he said on state radio.
Analysts said the impeachment showed Ahmadinejad was losing popularity even among some of his hardline backers.
"Only 45 lawmakers voted in favour of Kordan. It shows how conservative parliamentarians are losing faith in Ahmadinejad," said one political analyst, who asked not to be named.
Ahmadinejad defended Kordan as "an outstanding personality of the Islamic revolution" and said he would not attend the impeachment session over a "torn piece of paper".
"Parliamentarians have every right to impeach ministers ... But in this case I do not agree with the impeachment because it is raising repetitious claims again," Ahmadinejad told the official IRNA news agency on Sunday.
Ahmadinejad's allies said the impeachment was politically motivated to weaken the president before next year's vote, when Ahmadinejad is widely expected to run.
Saeed Laylaz, a commentator and frequent critic of the president, said the impeachment showed Ahmadinejad had failed to satisfy even loyal supporters since he was elected.
"Ahmadinejad is becoming more and more vulnerable. The vote showed that the prospect of winning the next election is dim for him," Laylaz told Reuters.
Ahmadinejad has been under fire because of surging inflation but analysts say much will depend on whether he can retain the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has praised the president's work in recent speeches.
Despite admitting his Oxford degree was fake, Kordan insisted he would not resign voluntarily. Under Iran's Islamic Sharia law, presentation of false documents, especially in government service, is punishable by prison.
"Political tension over the issue is a war against Iran's Islamic system," Kordan told lawmakers before the vote. "I have 30 years of executive background ... I do not need a degree."
Hardline lawmaker Bijan Nobaveh said Kordan's arguments were unacceptable. "Mr Kordan, you humiliated lawmakers. You did not respect the revolution's values," he said.
(Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian)
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