Iran has been criticised for its human rights abuses [EPA]

Iran has failed to secure a seat on a board running a new United Nations women's agency after the United States and its allies campaigned vigorously to make the Islamic Republic's bid fail.

East Timor, a late entrant to the contest, won the vote at the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) after being encouraged by British and French diplomats to contest.

Iran, which secured 19 out of 54 votes, was one of 10 candidates for the 10 slots on the 41-nation board allotted to Asian countries. The candidate list had been agreed and endorsed beforehand by the caucus of nations known as the Asia Group.
   
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, welcomed Iran's defeat, saying: "They lost, and they lost handily."

Iran is at loggerheads with the US over its nuclear programme, which Washington believes is intended to build an atomic bomb while Tehran insists it is acquiring nuclear energy for civilian use.

Women's freedoms in Iran are restricted, but the US supported other states that have been criticised by rights groups for their maltreatment of women.

Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where rape is commonplace in the country's violent east, faced no US opposition and won seats on the agency's board.

The European Union, Australia and Canada carried out an intensive diplomatic campaign to thwart Iran, diplomats said.

"It was an expression of disapproval of Iran's rights record," Norway's UN ambassador, Morten Wetland, told the AFP news agency.

'Catastrophic record on rights'

Campaigners had highlighted Iran's treatment of women, including the case of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani who was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.

Though Iran has said the punishment will not be carried out, reports say she could now be hanged after being found guilty of the murder of her husband.

"We are extremely relieved," Philippe Bolopion, a UN specialist for the Human Rights Watch, said of Iran's loss.

"Iran has a catastrophic record on rights. It is a country which has distinguished itself by actively repressing women's rights activists, they have harassed many and imprisoned some."

A resolution on Iran's human rights is to be voted at the UN General Assembly next week and is already the subject of intense new lobbying, diplomats said.

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner had said before the vote that having either Iran or Saudi Arabia on the board of UN  Women would "a joke".

Source: Agencies