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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran suffered a humiliating defeat on Wednesday in its bid to secure a seat on the board of a new U.N. women's agency after the United States and its allies campaigned against the Islamic Republic.
Other states that have been criticised by rights groups for their treatment of women, such as Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape is commonplace in the country's violent east, faced no U.S. opposition and won seats on the agency's board.
Iran 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.
Tehran had been assured of victory until East Timor decided at the last minute to run as an unendorsed Asian candidate. In the end, Iran received only 19 out of 54 votes at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It was the only Asia Group candidate on the ballot to be denied a seat.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice welcomed Iran's defeat, saying: "They lost, and they lost handily."
U.N. envoys said privately that U.S., British and French diplomats were among those encouraging East Timor to run. Rice did not deny that Washington was pleased East Timor had joined the race and had voiced support for its candidacy.
"We've made no secret of our concern that Iran joining the board of U.N. Women would have been an inauspicious start to that board," she told reporters after the vote. "We therefore welcome Timor-L'este's candidacy."
East Timor's Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Jose Ramos-Horta has criticized Iran before. In September he denounced as an "obscenity" remarks from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggesting that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Rice was asked why the United States had not lobbied against Saudi Arabia's candidacy given that Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has said that the situation for women in Saudi Arabia is worse than in her home country.
"I am not going to deny that there were several countries that are going to join the board of U.N. women that have less than stellar records on women's rights, indeed human rights," she said.
Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed relief that Iran was denied a seat on the board of U.N. Women.
"We thought it would have sent a terrible signal to women around the world," he said, adding that Iran has a "dismal record" on women's rights.
In addition to the Saudis and Congo, board members will include the United States, Norway, China, Russia and Pakistan.
Iran has been hit with four rounds of U.N. sanctions for refusing to freeze sensitive nuclear fuel activities, which Western powers fear is aimed at producing weapons but Tehran insists is part of a civilian atomic energy program.
Bolopion said both Saudi Arabia and Congo also had "major problems" regarding women's rights -- a senior U.N. official has called Congo the "world capital of rape." But he said Tehran had set itself apart from the problematic candidates by working actively to undermine women's empowerment at the U.N.
The Saudis had essentially been allowed to "buy their way" onto the board with a generous contribution, Bolopion added.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in September to head U.N. Women, which aims to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)