Iran's controversial bid to join the board of a powerful new United Nations agency promoting equality for women is running into intense resistance from a group of countries including the United States and Canada.
The campaign by Iran has enraged activists and disquieted officials from a range of nations. A country that sentenced a woman to death by stoning for committing adultery has no place overseeing UN Women, the agency devoted to women's rights, they say.
Iran's chances of winning a place on the board appeared extremely high until recently. But the United States, Australia and Canada have been working behind the scenes to deny Iran a spot, lobbying other nations and trying to recruit rival candidates.
Now a challenger has emerged at the last minute, throwing Iran's campaign into doubt. As Canada and roughly 50 other countries gather Wednesday morning to vote on who should join the 41-member executive board, will Iran prevail?
Established in July, UN Women is the culmination of years of efforts by women's groups. It merges four existing UN bodies focused on women's issues into a single, more effective whole under the leadership of Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile.
Iran isn't the only country aiming to join the board that has caused controversy. Saudi Arabia is also in the running, despite the fact that it places various restrictions on women, including a prohibition on driving.
Human-rights groups say that while several of the candidates have troubling records, Iran stands out for its persecution of advocates for women's rights who have spoken out against discriminatory laws.
Iran's presence on the board of UN Women "would send a pretty terrible message," says Philippe Bolopion, the UN advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Iran has demonstrated "outright hostility to the very objectives that UN Women was born to realize."
The seats on the agency's board are divided by region, with 10 seats reserved for Asian countries. Until last week, the Asian group had an uncontested slate - in other words, 10 countries, including Iran, were vying for 10 spots.
Since then, however, Timor-Leste - the official name for East Timor - has thrown its hat in the ring, bringing the number of Asian candidates to 11. Diplomats described the move as unusual because the region had already reached a consensus on its candidates.
The speculation is that "the eleventh candidate has been put up to take Iran out of the contest," says one Asian diplomat involved in the process. "Otherwise, Iran would have just gone through."
The United States is playing a leading role in opposing Iran's bid, but Australia and Canada are also taking part, according to a Canadian government source, who noted Australia's close relationship with Timor-Leste. Canadian diplomats in New York have lobbied countries involved in Wednesday's vote and urged them to block Iran, the source said.
"We are not voting for Iran and continue to publicly raise our serious concerns with their egregious human-rights record at every opportunity - including in this way," said Jacques Labrie, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We have no issues with supporting East Timor."
Timor-Leste's entry into the race has complicated things not just for Iran, but also for the other Asian candidates, who are scrambling to shore up support in a contest they thought was a foregone conclusion. Such campaigns are notorious for being unpredictable, as Canada learned in painful fashion last month when it lost its bid to win a temporary seat on the Security Council.
Diplomats say that Iran's bid to join the board of UN Women wasn't unexpected, since the country is known for seeking membership on a number of UN bodies. The board's role is to oversee the agency's operations, not set policy priorities.
Countries with poor records of defending human rights often make a point of being active members of the UN community and seeking spots on its various bodies, notes one diplomat from Latin America.
"They do it a little bit to poke the Western countries in the eye, but they also do it in a defensive mode because they feel that it's better to be inside than out," he says. "They're really there to cover their own backs."
Lately, Iran has faced considerable opposition to some of its efforts to join UN bodies. Earlier this year, it dropped out of the running for a spot on the Human Rights Council after the United States and others lobbied hard against its candidacy.
Iran sparked an international outcry after a sentence of death by stoning was meted out to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year old woman convicted of committing adultery. Iran suspended the punishment several months ago, but said she could be executed by hanging for the murder of her husband. Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's original lawyer has fled Iran and her son has been imprisoned.
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