But the resistance to US pressure underscores how difficult the terrain of multilateral institutions can be for the US, despite the efforts of the Biden administration to build US credibility in such forums.
Past activities of the women’s commission include placing groundwork for a historic treatise which has served as an international bill of rights for women and pushing countries to update their laws to provide equal rights for women. The UN documents describe the panel as the “main global intergovernmental body dedicated exclusively to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” Iran started a four-year term on commission this year.
The United States has led several successful efforts isolating Russia at the United Nations since it invaded Ukraine in February. Moscow has been suspended from the UN Human Rights Council and rebuked by wide margins in UN General Assembly votes.
The dynamic is a bit different with Iran. In this case, critics of the United States fall into three camps: those who felt left out of the discussions, those who say it seems arbitrary, and those who fear they will be the next targets of the United States.
Some UN delegations, including the European ones, felt attacked by the November 2 announcement in the US that he would make the effort, in some cases learning about it from media reports, and wish there were more consultations, a Western diplomat said.
Other delegations point out that many countries other than Iran have poor records on women’s rights, and occasionally sit on the commission or other panels dealing with rights issues. Pakistan and Somalia, for example, are also on the women’s commission, but both countries have deep social inequalities when it comes to gender. They say the signal sent by going after Iran is inconsistent.
The third group is concerned that if such removals become common practice in the UN system, their own governments may become victims of 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 worry the US will use more of these exclusionary tactics in the future. One day it’s Iran, the next day it could be you,” said Richard Gowan, a UN-focused analyst at International Crisis Group.
The Western diplomat said that while outsiders may wonder why Iran is on the panel, there is concern within the UN system about “what mistrust could be created” by initiating it. Many governments are unlikely to announce their official position until the day of the vote, said the diplomat, who like several others in this story spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions.
Still, even those who resist will feel significant pressure, including from outside activists, to agree with the US. “This is a proxy vote on whether you are with the protesters or with the government. The majority will side with Iran,” the second UN analyst predicted.
A draft of the strictly worded resolution to expel Iran from the commission, obtained by POLITICO, accuses Tehran of “administering policies flagrantly contrary to the human rights of women and girls,” including “through the use of deadly force.”
A US official familiar with the matter downplayed any potential rift, saying that US representatives and civil society activists are on the phone and “seeing that support continues to grow every day.”
“The message to these countries is simple: Iran is killing women in the streets for protesting,” the US official said. “This is the right thing to do at the right time.”
The European Union will provide the central block of support for the US. The women’s commission is a body of the 54-member UN Economic and Social Council, and 12 of those members are from the EU. The EU plans to confirm its collective support for the resolution at its weekly coordination meeting of EU ambassadors ahead of the vote, the Western diplomat said.
However, a State Department official familiar with the matter said some of America’s “normal partners may 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” effort by the United States to remove it from the commission on the basis of ” false accusations and fabricated assumptions”.
“This illegitimate request signals another attempt by the United States to exploit the UN system to further its political agenda,” Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.
In recent days, Iranian officials have suggested that they may relax enforcement of laws governing women’s clothing and halt morale police operations. Still, it’s unclear how far the Iranian authorities are willing to go to give women more freedom, and such moves may not be enough for many of the protesters who want outright regime change.
A coalition of women’s rights advocatesincluding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, entertainment icon Oprah Winfrey and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardernthey were among those who joined Iranian activists this year in calling for Iran’s removal from the commission.
“This will not only serve to boost the morale of the protesters in Iran, who feel that the international community is abandoning them, but it will protect the integrity of the [commission] and the UN,” said Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian-British actress who has been an outspoken supporter of the protesters.
Amid the pressure, US officials undertook a legal and procedural analysis and ultimately decided it was possible to remove Iran from the council. From there, it was “quite easy to decide to proceed,” the State Department official said.
The Biden administration has been pushing the issue to the highest levels. Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would take steps to expel Iran in an early november statement. A White House official said Harris “has been actively engaged in and regularly briefed on our efforts to support the women of Iran and 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 of them could undermine US claims of support.
One of the reasons the United States and its allies succeeded in expelling countries from the Human Rights Council is that there are established procedures for doing it. Aside from the case of Russia, the UN suspended Libya from the council in 2011, when it was led by dictator Muammar Gadhafi amid the Arab Spring uprisings. Libya was reinstated months later after Gaddafi was assassinated.
Expelling a country from the women’s commission is a more difficult task, because it has rarely, if ever, been attempted before, and the exact mechanism for doing so is less clear.