The United States wants Iran excluded from a UN panel on women’s rights. It is not so easy.

But the resistance to the U.S. push underscores how tricky multilateral institutions on the ground can be for the United States, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to bolster U.S. credibility in such forums.

Past activities of the Women’s Commission include laying the groundwork for a historic treaty that served as an international declaration of women’s rights and urging countries to update their laws to ensure equal rights for women. UN documents describe the panel as the “leading global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women”. Iran began a four-year term on the commission this year.

The United States has led several successful efforts to isolate Russia at the United Nations since it invaded Ukraine in February. Moscow was suspended from the UN Human Rights Council and reprimanded by wide margins in votes at the UN General Assembly.

The dynamic is a bit different with Iran. In this case, America’s critics fall into three camps: those who feel left out of the discussions, those who say it seems arbitrary, and those who fear they will be America’s next targets.

Some UN delegations, including European delegations, felt rejected by the November 2 US announcement that it would make the move – in some cases learning about it through media reports – and would have wished there had been more consultation, said a Western diplomat.

Other delegations note that many countries beyond Iran have poor records on women’s rights and occasionally sit on the commission or other groups that deal with rights issues. Pakistan and Somalia, for example, are also part of the women’s commission, but both countries have deep social gender inequalities. The signal sent by attacking Iran is inconsistent, they say.

The third group fears that if such evictions become common practice in the UN system, their own governments could fall victim to the tactic, according to two UN analysts and the Western diplomat.

“I’ve heard many diplomats say they think Iran’s actions are vile, but they’re worried the US will use these exclusionary tactics more in the future. One day it’s Iran, the next it could be you,” said Richard Gowan, UN analyst at the International Crisis Group.

The Western diplomat said that while outsiders may wonder why Iran is on the panel, within the United Nations system there are concerns about “the mistrust that could be created” by launching it. Many governments are unlikely to announce their official position before voting day, said the diplomat, who like several others in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions.

Yet even the holdouts will feel significant pressure, including from outside activists, to follow the United States. Most will side against Iran,” the second UN analyst predicted.

Tightly worded draft resolution seeking to expel Iran from committee, obtained by POLITICO, accuses Tehran of ‘administering policies manifestly contrary to the human rights of women and girls’, including ‘using lethal force’ .

A US official familiar with the matter played down any potential rift, saying US officials as well as civil society activists were working on the phone and “seeing the support continue to grow every day”.

“The message to these countries is simple: Iran is killing women in the streets for protesting,” the US official said. “It’s the right thing to do at the right time.”

The European Union will provide the core block of support to the United States. The Women’s Commission is an organ of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, composed of 54 members, and 12 of these members are from the EU. The EU plans to confirm its collective support for the resolution at its weekly coordination meeting of ambassadors to the EU ahead of the vote, the Western diplomat said.

A State Department official familiar with the matter, however, said some of America’s “normal partners might be more concerned” than usual about the move.

Iran’s delegation to the United Nations sent a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and other senior UN officials denouncing what it called an “illegal” US effort to push him back of the commission on the basis of “false allegations and fabricated assumptions”.

“This illegitimate request indicates a new attempt by the United States to exploit the UN system to advance its political agenda,” wrote Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.

In recent days, Iranian officials have hinted that they may ease enforcement of laws governing women’s dress and end the operations of morality police. Still, it’s unclear how far Iranian authorities are willing to go to give more freedom to women, and such measures may not be enough for many protesters who want wholesale regime change.

A coalition of women’s rights advocates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, entertainment icon Oprah Winfrey and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, were among those who joined Iranian activists this year to call for Iran’s withdrawal from the commission.

“This will not only serve to boost the morale of protesters in Iran, who feel the international community is abandoning them, but will protect the integrity of the [commission] and the UN,” said Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian-British actress who has been a strong supporter of the protesters.

Amid the pressure, US officials undertook a legal and procedural analysis, ultimately deciding it was possible to expel Iran from the council. From there, it was “pretty easily decided to continue,” the State Department official said.

The Biden administration has taken the issue to the highest level. Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would expel Iran in a statement in early November. A White House official said Harris “has been actively engaged and regularly briefed on our efforts to support Iranian women and to hold Iranian officials accountable.”

To pass, the resolution will need a majority of ECOSOC members present and voting. Abstentions do not count as votes, but large numbers could undermine claims of US support.

One of the reasons the United States and its allies have been successful in excluding countries from the Human Rights Council is that there are established procedures for doing so. Besides Russia’s case, the UN suspended Libya from the council in 2011, when it was ruled by dictator Muammar Gaddafi amid the Arab Spring uprisings. Libya was restored months later after Gaddafi’s death.

Getting a country kicked out of the women’s commission is a more difficult task, as it has rarely, if ever, been tried before, and the exact mechanism for doing so is less clear.


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