By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran is running for the vice chairmanship of the U.N. Disarmament Commission, which the United States said on Thursday was unacceptable in light of Tehran's many breaches of Security Council demands that it halt its controversial atomic work.
Several U.N. diplomats told Reuters that Iran was running unopposed for one of two vice chair posts allotted to the Asia-Pacific Group, one of five regional U.N. groups.
Iran's U.N. mission defended its candidacy for the post, saying Tehran has been a "front-runner" on disarmament for years.
Western diplomats said such U.N. posts are largely symbolic, though Tehran uses them to try to improve its reputation at the United Nations.
Washington, which cannot prevent Tehran from taking up the post, said that Iran was the wrong country to hold a position on the Disarmament Commission, an obscure committee that discusses and makes recommendations about disarmament issues.
"Iran is absolutely not a suitable choice to be a vice chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission," said Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
"Iran is the subject of multiple ... Security Council (sanctions) resolutions regarding its nuclear program," she said. "Iran is also in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"It is incumbent upon regional groups to enforce the common-sense principle that countries subject to U.N. sanctions should not be granted formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies," she added.
Iran has been hit with several rounds of Security Council, U.S. and European Union sanctions for refusing to suspend its nuclear activities as demanded by the 15-nation council. Tehran rejects Western powers' allegations that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability and insists its atomic ambitions are entirely peaceful.
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission, rejected the U.S. criticism.
"Iran is a major victim of weapons of mass destruction in recent decades and as a founding member of the United Nations and the chair of NAM (non-aligned movement), ... has played a front-runner role in disarmament issues," he said.
He said Tehran has been pushing for the creation of a "Middle East nuclear weapons free zone," which helped establish Iran's reputation as "one of the best nominees for this position."
Earlier this week, Israel condemned the selection of Iran as a "rapporteur" for the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly's First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security.
The U.N. Disarmament Commission is separate from the First Committee but is related because of its focus on disarmament issues.
"Permitting Iran to serve on the U.N.'s leading disarmament committee (First Committee) is like appointing a drug lord CEO of a pharmaceutical company," Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor said in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"Iran's appointment erodes the U.N.'s legitimacy and its ability to promote arms control and disarmament as well as, preserve global peace and security."
Iran previously served as vice chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission in 2006 and 2007, and its deputy foreign minister was chairman in 2000.
Next week Iran will meet with the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany in Geneva in an attempt to revive stalled negotiations aimed at ending the decade-long standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Christopher Wilson)