Iranian Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini survived an impeachment vote in parliament on Tuesday after being accused of lax oversight of the banking sector in relation to the biggest fraud in the Islamic republic’s history.
Of 244 lawmakers present, a majority of 141 voted to retain Hosseini in his post, defeating an impeachment motion launched last week by 22 MPs.
The result was a victory for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who defended the minister in parliament on Tuesday.
Ahmadinejad argued that the country, under severe Western economic sanctions, “needed to unite to neutralise the actions of the enemies” and that Hosseini played a “key role” in that effort.
The huge scam caused a media and political storm when it was revealed in September.
Officials have arrested 38 people and are probing allegations that a private Iranian group had amassed trillions of rials through forged letters of credit approved by half a dozen Iranian banks.
Parliament estimates the magnitude of the fraud to be $2.6 billion, while the economy ministry puts it at around $1.6 billion.
Hosseini was accused by critics in parliament of not having implemented sufficient oversight of the banks involved in the scandal, and of handing out posts to individuals who were incompetent or not vetted.
On Tuesday, some MPs also accused Hosseini of nepotism, and of not taking responsibility over the scandal by tendering his resignation.
“In the cronyist structure of the economy ministry, regulations are regularly violated,” said MP Hassan Dehdashti.
Hosseini’s nomination as economy minister was approved by lawmakers in August 2008. He took the portfolio on promises to curb inflation, reform the banking system and reform oversight in the sector.
Hosseini defended himself by saying he had not been aware of the fraud and offered his apologies to the parliament and the people.
The minister unexpectedly received support from one of the main political rivals of Ahmadinejad in the conservative camp — parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.
“With this (impeachment procedure) you warned the minister … and Mr Hosseini apologised truthfully,” Larijani said, adding that the parliament should “not create new conflicts” in the current political atmosphere.
At the centre of the fraud is a company called the Aria group, which was founded in 2005 with a mere $50,000. In 2011, estimates put its value at more than $3.5 billion.
The scandal took a political turn after media opposed to Ahmadinejad published a letter attributed to his chief of staff and principal advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, reportedly asking Hosseini to facilitate the Aria group’s operations.
On September 14, Ahmadinejad spoke in spirited defence of Mashaie and urged the judiciary to launch an “honest” probe into the case.
MPs opposed to Ahmadinejad have unsuccessfully attempted several times to question the president over the issue.
A new application was filed last week with Larijani, who said the previous attempts failed to sustain the necessary number of MPs’ signatures to initiate the process.