By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran on Tuesday defended its election as the rotating chair of the world's sole multilateral disarmament forum after the United States announced that its ambassador to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament would boycott any meeting led by Tehran.
The U.N. Conference on Disarmament has been deadlocked for about 15 years. While the chairmanship of the Geneva-based body is largely ceremonial, it is a high-profile position.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is a founding member of the United Nations," said Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission.
"Its election to the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament, as the most important disarmament negotiating body of the U.N., is its right in accordance with the established practice and rules of procedure of this organ," he said.
Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said on Monday that the selection of Iran was "unfortunate and highly inappropriate." She said countries under U.N. sanctions for arms proliferation or human rights abuses should be barred from such formal or ceremonial U.N. posts.
Iran is under sanctions by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other international bodies for refusing to halt a nuclear enrichment program that Tehran says is peaceful but Western nations and their allies suspect is aimed at giving it the capability to produce atomic weapons.
The United States and Europe have also accused Iran of violating a U.N. embargo on Iranian arms exports in order to supply weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They say Tehran is support Assad's efforts to defeat rebels seeking to overthrow him in the country's two-year civil war.
Pelton said the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Laura Kennedy, would boycott any meeting chaired by Iran. Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 after Iranian students took U.S. diplomats hostage in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution.
Rick Roth, spokesman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry, also condemned Iran's election to the disarmament conference.
"This makes a mockery of disarmament issues, and the world's sincere desire to make progress," he said. "In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, the regime is working directly against global disarmament goals and subverting the fundamental principles of this committee."
Miryousefi denied that Iran was in violation of any of its treaty obligations.
"Iran is a State Party to and in full compliance with all major treaties prohibiting the weapons of mass destruction negotiated within this body," he said.
Those treaties include the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, he said.
"During its presidency, the Islamic Republic of Iran would focus on promoting the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament through according the highest priority to nuclear disarmament and the total elimination of nuclear arsenals of the nuclear-weapon States in an irreversible, transparent and internationally verifiable manner," Miryousefi said.
Iran will chair the conference for four weeks beginning on May 27. The 65-nation Conference on Disarmament, created in 1978, negotiated biological and chemical weapons conventions but has been unable to carry out substantive work since 1998 because members could not agree on priorities.
A key task proposed for the panel has been to negotiate a halt to production of nuclear bomb-making fissile material. That step has been blocked by Pakistan, which says it would put it at a permanent disadvantage to rival India.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly urged the disarmament conference to overcome its deadlock.
Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a Geneva-based advocacy group that monitors the work of the United Nations, said in a statement on Monday that the selection of Iran as the conference chair "is like putting Jack the Ripper in charge of a women's shelter."
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Jackie Frank)