Iran's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, seen in this September 2010 file photo, said Iran should not be awarded a seat on the board of a new UN agency to promote women's equality. ((Thierry Roge/Reuters))

Iran has lost its bid for a seat on the board of a new United Nations agency meant to promote equality for women.

Iran was one of 11 nations on a slate put forward by Asian nations for the election Wednesday to the board of UN Women, which merges four UN agencies dealing with women's issues into a single organization. After the vote, Iran was in last place.

Canada, the United States and Australia had been lobbying behind the scenes to deny Iran a seat.

East Timor, a last-minute entrant on the ballot, was successful.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon issued a release welcoming Iran's exclusion, saying Canada was "deeply troubled by the prospect of Iran's membership" because of its deplorable human rights record, particularly with regard to women.

"Even when it comes to its own citizens, Iranian  authorities continue to threaten the protection of the most fundamental human rights," Cannon said. "Canada will continue to urge the Iranian authorities to improve its human rights record and will take every opportunity to do so publicly."

Ex-Chilean president Bachelet to head agency 

Meanwhile, another controversial candidate, Saudi Arabia, was also awarded a seat on the board.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi said she thinks it's "a joke" that Iran and Saudi Arabia were running for places on the board of UN Women.

The new super-agency was created last July to promote women's rights and gender equality. Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet will run UN Women, which will have a 41-member executive board, with 35 members chosen by regional groups and six representing donor nations.

Speaking at the UN on Tuesday, Ebadi said the situation in Iran is "deteriorating daily" and that repression in the country has intensified.

"The membership of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia on this board is like a joke," she said. "This is a mocking situation for the board from the commencement of its work."

Ebadi pointed to Iranian rules that make it difficult for a woman to obtain a passport and noted that in Iran the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man.

Human Rights Watch 'relieved'

Iran has also faced an international outcry over its decision to sentence 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death by stoning for adultery. Human rights groups around the world criticized the decision and Iran's foreign minister later said a final verdict in Ashtiani's case hadn't been issued yet.

A resolution adopted by the General Assembly last year expressed "deep concern" at Iran's increasing use of executions, death by stoning, torture, flogging and amputations, and its increasing discrimination against religious, ethnic and other minorities.

"We are relieved that the Asia group in the end is not offering Iran a free pass to the board of UN Women," Philippe Bolopion, UN advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

He said his organization has concerns with many countries that are going to be on the board.

"But what sets Iran apart is not just its dismal record on women's rights but also the fact that it's aggressively going after women's rights advocates who dare to speak out against their discriminatory laws," Bolopion said.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press