Iran Takes on Additional Leadership Roles at United Nations, Despite Flouting U.N. Resolutions

Patrick Goodenough | December 4, 2009 | 5:07am EST
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. headquarters in New York on September 25, 2009. (UN Photo by Mark Garten)

(Editor’s note: Adds comment from Sweden/E.U. presidency and UNIDO.)

( – Iran was reprimanded last week by the United Nations atomic agency for its nuclear activities, and criticized last month by a General Assembly committee for post-election human rights abuses, but the Islamic republic is far from isolated at the world body.

On the contrary, Iran holds a number of leadership positions at the U.N. -- and has just taken on additional ones.

On Wednesday, a Vienna-based U.N. body, the 53-member Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), elected Iran as chairman of its next year-long session. The 63-year-old CND is described as the U.N.’s “central policy-making body in drug-related issues.”

As CND chair, Iran will be represented by Ali-Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s envoy to international organizations based in Vienna – the diplomat who represents Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Next week, Iran is slated to be picked to chair a five-day General Conference of a specialized U.N. agency also based in Vienna, the 173-member United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

The conference is the supreme governing body of the agency, approving policies and budget and appointing its director-general. In line with UNIDO’s rules of procedure, the president of this year’s meeting must be chosen from one of 41 mostly developing nations in Asia; the Asian regional group is putting forward Iran for the position.

The chances of Iran not getting the post are slim. The country’s ISNA news agency is already reporting that “Iran will run the United Nations Industrial Developments Organizations General Conference for the first time” this year.

Ironically, the UNIDO gathering will take place in the same chamber in the Austrian capital where the IAEA governing board last Friday passed a resolution censuring Iran.

UNIDO is the agency which the Obama administration is reportedly considering rejoining, 13 years after the U.S. withdrew amid criticism over its purpose and effectiveness.

UNIDO spokesman Mikhail Evstafyev confirmed Friday that Asian member states had nominated Iran’s permanent representative as president of the General Conference. He said the nomination would be taken up during the opening meeting on Monday.

Evstafyev said the U.S. mission in Vienna had been invited to the conference as observers, as had other non-UNIDO member states. He said U.S. mission representatives had attended events in the past.

The U.S. mission has not responded to queries, both on the issue of the U.S. returning to UNIDO and on the question of Iran’s role at the conference.

Asked about the appropriateness of Iran taken the helm at both the UNIDO conference and the narcotics body, Swedish foreign ministry spokesperson Ambassador Cecilia Julin said Friday that in both cases “it is the Asian group that has nominated Iran as chairman. It is the custom that others accept the nominations of the regional groups.”

“There are no sanctions or limitations when it comes to Iran’s work in the U.N. and the nomination by the Asian group has therefore been [accepted],” she said. Sweden currently holds the European Union presidency.

Still, a Western diplomat accredited to UNIDO said earlier that several Western countries’ missions in Vienna had expressed reservations about the plan for Iran to chair the conference.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) (Photo from congressman's Web site)

Criticism also came from U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a conservative and outspoken critic of the Iranian regime.

“The U.N. allowing Iran to chair any agency should cause the U.S. to reconsider our how much of a commitment we have to the U.N.,” he said Thursday in response to queries.

Rohrabacher voiced doubts about the U.S. returning to UNIDO.

“We should not be a part of any agency the U.N permits Iran to lead considering that decision reconfirms what the U.N. is really all about,” he said.

Rohrabacher, the ranking Republican on a Foreign Affairs subcommittee dealing with international organizations and human rights, held talks with UNIDO officials in Vienna last August.

Busy at the U.N.

Embroiled in a dispute with the West over its nuclear activities since 2002, Iran has been a major focus of the IAEA over the ensuing seven years. It is also under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment.

Despite this, and in the face of U.S.-led efforts to isolate it and compel it to comply with IAEA and Security Council resolutions, Iran remains active at the U.N., where it holds a number of senior positions.

In most cases the positions were obtained as a result of election by other U.N. member states. In some cases there was no contest; Iran was put up by the Asian regional group and attained the post “by acclamation.”

Among others, Iran is:

-- President of the executive board of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) for 2009.

-- President of the executive board of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) for 2009

-- Vice-chairman of the U.N. General Assembly’s Committee on Information for 2009-2010. The body’s mission encompasses “strengthen[ing] peace and international understanding” by promoting “the free circulation and wider and better-balanced dissemination of information.”

-- Vice-chairman of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with legal affairs, for 2009-2010.

-- Member of the 36-country executive board of the U.N. Children’s Fund for 2008-2010.

-- Member of the 25-country advisory committee for the U.N. Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law, for the 2008-2011 period.

Leadership positions held by Iran in the recent past include the vice-chairmanship (2007-2008) of the U.N. Disarmament Commission, a body dealing with nuclear and conventional arms reduction, and non-proliferation.

Iran has twice in recent years been unsuccessful in getting U.N. leadership positions.

Last year it put itself up for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council earmarked for the Asian group, but lost to Japan, the only other contender representing the Asian group.

Iran also sought membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) at its first election in 2006, but was unsuccessful. It is believed to be considering standing again in 2010.

Although not currently a member of the HRC, Iran has been active in the U.N.’s Geneva-based human rights structures, holding positions on two five-strong expert working groups – one on arbitrary detentions, the other on enforced or involuntary disappearances.

Iran also played an important role in the HRC’s preparations for the controversial U.N. conference on racism in Geneva this year. Iran was a member of the 20-country  preparatory committee for the conference, known as “Durban II,” and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered an explosive speech, sparking a walkout by some Western diplomats.
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