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November 16, 2017 6:06 pm

South Korean Candidate Defeats Iranian Frontrunner in Key UNESCO Election Contest

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The UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Photo: File.

South Korea’s ambassador to UNESCO — the cultural, scientific and educational agency of the United Nations — was elected on Thursday as chairman of the Executive Board, in a vote many observers believe would be won by an Iranian candidate.

Lee Byoung-hyun won the ballot of the 57-member Executive Board by 32 votes against 25 for Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Jalali. The Iranian defeat on Thursday followed October’s blow to Qatar’s hopes of winning the post of UNESCO director-general. In that race, French candidate Audrey Azoulay defeated Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari following a contest in which the Qatari was similarly regarded as the leading contender.

Israel welcomed the Iranian defeat. Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, paid tribute to “Western efforts, especially by the US and Israel, to create competition for the Iranians and to stop Tehran’s control of the Executive Committee.” These efforts “took place mainly behind the scenes and today had an impressive success,” the ambassador said.

Shimon Samuels — international affairs director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a US-based Jewish organization with observer status at UNESCO — said that the vote “also mirrored the growing fear among Sunni Muslim countries of Shia Iran’s imperialist threats to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and beyond.”

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Last month, the SWC protested Iran’s candidacy in a letter to outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, pointing out that the Tehran regime was lobbying for recognition of the ancient city of Dezful as a UNESCO heritage site. A prison in the same city is alleged to be the location of a massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 directed by Mahmoud Alavi, who is now Iran’s minister of intelligence, the SWC said.

Whether Thursday’s victory for the South Korean ambassador will encourage the US and Israel to reverse their decisions to leave UNESCO remains unclear. The US announced on October 12 that it was withdrawing from the agency, citing the rampant anti-Israel bias of its agenda as the reason. Israel followed the US example hours later.

Audrey Azoulay, elected as UNESCO’s director-general three days after the American and Israeli announcements, has made clear her desire for both countries to remain inside the agency.

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