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Stiff opposition from Western nations, including Canada, derailed a bid by Iran to join the executive board of a high-powered new United Nations agency focused on achieving equality for women.

But other nations with troubling track records on women's rights did manage to win spots on the board, including Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive, and Congo, where mass rape has become a tactic in a brutal war.

Iran's drive to earn a seat on the board had sparked angry responses from human-rights groups and quiet consternation among diplomats. They feared Iran's presence would send the wrong signal just as the much-anticipated new agency, called UN Women, began its work.

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"Canada was deeply troubled by the prospect of Iran's membership" on the board, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon said in a statement, which noted that Canada worked with "like-minded partners" to oppose Iran's candidacy.

During an election held Wednesday at the UN, Iran garnered fewer votes than Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor. In a surprise move, the tiny southeast Asian nation entered the contest just days before the vote and rode a wave of support from the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

The product of years of discussions, UN Women is the merger of four existing bodies focused on women's issues into a single, streamlined agency that will benefit from increased funding for its activities.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said earlier this week that the presence of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia on the UN Women board would be "a joke."

Iran has a poor track record on women's rights. An Iranian woman was sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery, a number of women activists have been imprisoned, and women face discriminatory laws in everyday life, including one which makes court testimony by a woman less valuable than that of a man.

Until very recently, Iran's presence on the governing body of UN Women appeared inevitable. The executive board consists of 41 seats, with 35 spots divided up among the world's regions and six reserved for nations that are major donors to the agency (Saudi Arabia ran unopposed for one of the donor seats).

Asia is allotted 10 spots on the board and presented a slate of 10 candidates, including Iran, for those seats. In such a situation, the result is less a competition than a foregone conclusion. But, last week Timor-Leste, which gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, said that it, too, would run for one of the Asian seats, bringing the number of candidates to 11.

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Only the 54 nations who sit on the UN's Economic and Social Council were eligible to vote on the board's members. Canada is a member of the council, as are the United States, Australia and several European nations.

Despite having just days to prepare for the vote, Timor-Leste trounced Iran in Wednesday's poll, receiving 36 votes to Iran's 19. The other nine Asian candidates - Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, and South Korea - all received 50 or more votes.

Wednesday's vote is an expression of "grave concern and disapproval by the countries of the UN concerning the situation of women in Iran," said Morten Wetland, Norway's ambassador to the UN. Norway also supported Timor-Leste.

The United States noted its satisfaction at the result. "We've made no secret of our concern that Iran joining the board [of]UN Women would have been an inauspicious start to that board," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador. "We think it was a very good outcome today."

American diplomats led the effort to oppose Iran's candidacy, with countries such as Canada lending a helping hand, whether in discussions with voting nations or helping to scout possible rival candidates.

Some speculated that Australia asked Timor-Leste to run, since the two countries have a close relationship, but the former denied any such role. "We did not recruit candidates to run against Iran," said Gary Quinlan, Australia's ambassador to the UN. "Once Timor-Leste became a candidate, we supported them."

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It's the second time this year that resistance from other nations, particularly the United States, has disrupted Iran's plans to join a UN body. In April, Iran withdrew its candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council after facing growing opposition to its bid.

Experts point out that the role of the UN Women executive board is to oversee the agency and approve budgets rather than to set policy priorities, so it's unlikely that a single country could sway its operations simply by virtue of being a board member.

With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa

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