TEHRAN Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad angered lawmakers Tuesday when he questioned their authority, even as he finally gave in to their demand to create a sports ministry.
The latest spat between president and parliament comes after weeks of infighting about who should head certain key ministries, in what analysts say is a test of strength by rival conservative factions ahead of parliamentary elections next year that will set the stage for a presidential race in 2013.
Parliament voted in January to create a sports ministry by merging two existing organizations, but Ahmadinejad, who is combining several ministries in a controversial government streamlining, failed to do so for months.
He finally nominated a sports minister Tuesday but only after speaker Ali Larijani -- a longtime rival and possible future presidential candidate -- launched legal proceedings against him.
Far from appeasing lawmakers, who have long criticised the populist hardline president for lacking respect for the legislature, the move infuriated them as it was announced in a three-page letter criticising the way parliament wished to set up and fund the ministry.
"The ambiguities and problems in the bill will not only disrupt sport affairs and create conflicts in this field but also will harm the achievements of Iranian athletes," Ahmadinejad said in the letter.
"Now, considering the restrictions and the possibility of more harm to sport and youth affairs organisations, I have no choice but to introduce the minister," he said, nominating Hamid Sajjadi, a former runner who represented Iran at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
The letter drew a furious response from parliament where members have talked about calling Ahmadinejad in to face their questions and even mentioned a possible impeachment.
"This method of introducing a minister is an insult to the stature of parliamentarians. Therefore we will not attend the session for the vote of confidence for the minister," lawmaker Emad Hosseini said.
Larijani told the assembly Ahmadinejad's delay in creating the ministry was "unacceptable."
"This bill does not have any ambiguities, but if the government found some, it should have asked parliament for explanations and not delayed this important law for six months."
The sports row comes as parliament is still reeling from Ahmadinejad's decision last month to sack Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi as part of a plan to merge several ministries.
Lawmakers declared Ahmadinejad's initial decision to put himself temporarily in charge of the ministry illegal, forcing him to appoint a caretaker minister, Mohammad Aliabadi, a close ally to the president who has been criticised in the house for lack of experience.
Ahmadinejad's opponents in the conservative-dominated parliament have been emboldened by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's intervention to stop the president sacking his intelligence minister, which analysts said showed he could no longer count on the complete support of Iran's top authority.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)