Iran's President Hassan Rouhani suffered a fresh setback on Wednesday when the conservative-dominated parliament rejected his choice for science minister as too close to reformists.
Mahmoud Nili-Ahmadabadi, the pick for minister of science, research and technology, lost a vote of confidence by a margin of 79 to 160 following a parliamentary debate lasting almost three hours.
It was the third time since Rouhani took office that deputies rejected his candidate for the influential post that covers Iranian universities.
Lawmakers questioned Nili-Ahmadabadi over his stance on the mass protests which broke out after the June 2009 re-election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"None of my colleagues nor I have crossed the red lines set" by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he said.
"You will not find a single case of our having overstepped these limits," he said, questioned over a letter sent to Khamenei and signed by academics including himself to condemn attacks on student protesters inside university campuses.
"All my colleagues believe in the system (of the Islamic republic) and acted within the framework of the system," Nili-Ahmadabadi said.
Parliament in August sacked Rouhani's previous science minister, Reza Faraji Dana, for trying to recruit to his staff people accused of involvement in the 2009 protest movement, in which thousands of university students took part.
Reformers and moderates have accused conservatives, who viewed the protests as a "plot" against the Islamic system, of working to weaken Rouhani's government.
A Western diplomat in Tehran told AFP that the post of science minister was so sensitive because Iranian universities were "very politically active and difficult to manage".
Faraji Dana was already Rouhani's third choice as minister for science after parliament rejected the first two nominees.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
The role of science minister will be held on an acting basis by Mohammad Ali Najafi, whose permanent appointment was also voted down by lawmakers.
- Underlying tensions -
The refusal to back Nili-Ahmadabadi demonstrates underlying tension between Iran's government and parliament, many members of which are wary of Rouhani's overtures of reform and frequently criticise the "invasion" of Western values in Iranian society.
Rouhani kicked off Wednesday's session by defending Nili-Ahmadabadi, adding that "universities need a peaceful atmosphere".
In response, conservatives warned of "sedition" -- a term often used in reference to the 2009 protests.
Rouhani allies criticised the conservatives' stance.
"This question of sedition has become a stick through which fundamentalists and conservatives impose their will," university professor Ahmad Shirzad told the Aftab news agency, which is seen as close to Rouhani.
But the conservative camp blamed the government for its failure to field a suitable candidate for the sensitive role.
"If relations between the (government and parliament) were good, this candidate would have won a vote of confidence," said lawmaker Ali Motahari, quoted by the official IRNA news agency.
Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a pillar of the conservative bloc who is close to Khamenei, said an acceptable candidate would be "a competent manager" who could prevent a pro-reform enviroment taking hold again in universities.