100 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Iran

Switzerland’s good offices are based on mutual trust and serve peace

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

Good relations between Iran and Switzerland exist for a long time. Persia and Switzerland concluded a treaty of friendship and trade as early as in the 19th century (1873). In 1920 Switzerland opened its embassy in Tehran. A ceremony to mark Switzerland’s 100th diplomatic presence took place in Tehran at the beginning of September.

To mark the occasion, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), visited Iran from 5 to 7 September 2020, accompanied by National Councillor Tiana Angelina Moser, President of the Foreign Policy Committee of the National Council, and Councillor of States Thomas Minder, President of the Security Policy Committee and member of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Council of States. Cassis’ agenda included meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Federal Councillor Cassis also spoke with representatives of Swiss companies, the scientific community and the health sector. Topics included the Swiss funding channel for the export of humanitarian goods to Iran (SHTA), current developments concerning the nuclear agreement and the situation in the Middle East. A special place was given to the protecting power mandates which Switzerland has assumed for several states within the framework of good offices.1 

A relationship based on reliance is central

The Swiss Ambassador to Iran, Markus Leitner, praised the celebration of the 100th anniversary as an expression of the good relations between the two countries: “Although our countries are geographically far apart, they have developed very intensive cooperation and lively exchanges over the decades, under sometimes difficult circumstances. I find that impressive.” Today, Switzerland and Iran work together in a wide range of areas: from politics, economics, finance, trade, agriculture, culture, education and research to migration and human rights. Ambassador Leitner said: “The exchange and work between the two countries have increased. In this part of the world, a relationship based on trust is central”.2
   Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis has the sensitivity that is indispensable in Iran’s difficult global political situation. Before the official meetings in Tehran, for example, he took part in a tourism programme in Isfahan and met Iranians from the fields of trade, business and culture. Getting to know the country first helps him to establish a personal relationship, says Cassis. This is the key to ensuring that critical remarks are heard. After his meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, which lasted longer than planned, Cassis said: “In diplomacy, every minute is an indicator of quality. Because that is how you show your counterpart that you care about the relationship.”3

Excursus: International law violating US-sanctions and human rights

“When we as Swiss parliamentarians travel to a country like Iran, where human rights are disregarded, it is our duty to address this,” said Tiana Angelina Moser, a Green-liberal National Councillor who had flown to Tehran with Federal Councillor Cassis. Freedom of expression was not guaranteed, she said, and women’s rights were also severely restricted. Some people, according to NZZ correspondent Larissa Rhyn, even demanded that official Switzerland refrain from visiting Iran because of the difficult human rights situation there. Federal Councillor Cassis, on the other hand, took a more pertinent approach to the problem. He handed over a list of human rights violations to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, and commented: “If we manage to solve even two cases out of twenty, we have already achieved a lot”.4
   Anyone who speaks of human rights violations in connection with the current situation of the Iranian state and its population must also address the extent to which the US government’s sanctions, which are contrary to international law, affect the civilian population. People’s access to sufficient food and adequate health care is one of the most important human rights. This is threatened by the sanctions.
   A brief look back: although the Iranian leadership, under pressure from the USA and its allies, agreed to curtail its own nuclear programme, the US government unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear treaty in 2018, “on the grounds” that Tehran was violating with a missile programme and because it was supporting militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon “the spirit of the nuclear agreement”(!).5 Since May 2018, the USA has been imposing sanctions in violation of international law. Above all, they have cut off Iran’s most important source of income, the export of oil, and blacklisted companies when they trade with Iran. Humanitarian goods such as medicines and food are actually excluded, but most companies and banks are afraid of Washington’s blacklists. The people pay the price: wages are falling, and prices are rising. The corona pandemic exacerbates the emergency situation. Although the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for an end to sanctions in March this year to allow the delivery of urgently needed medical equipment to Iran, the US refuses.6
   It is worth noting that President Trump has kept his election promise not to start new wars in relation to Iran. After the death of Iranian General Kassem Soleimani in a US drone attack in January this year, Iran bombed a US military base in Iraq a few days later, leaving many dead and wounded. To the great relief of the Iranian people and the international community, Donald Trump refrained from a military response.

Switzerland’s good relations to the involved states
as door openers: The SHTA example

Its impartiality is of great importance for Switzerland’s capability to offer its good offices and provide humanitarian aid anywhere in the world. Breaking off contact with a government somewhere in the world because it violates the rule of law or democratic principles would do little to help the people in these countries.
   This is why Switzerland was able to set up the “Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement” (SHTA) in close cooperation with the relevant authorities in the USA and Iran, as well as with a number of Swiss banks and companies. This is a payment channel at Swiss banks for Swiss-based trading companies exporting humanitarian goods such as agricultural commodities, food, medicines and medical equipment to Iran. The US Treasury Department gives the banks involved assurances that the financial transactions can be handled in accordance with US legislation – or, more clearly, that the exporting companies will not be blacklisted. The Swiss SECO (State Secretariat for Economic Affairs) supervises the proper conduct of all activities under the SHTA. On 27 January 2020, a first payment for the supply of cancer drugs was performed as a test run.7 On 4 September, the Iranian online portal “ParsToday” appreciated the “humanitarian channel” which “is intended to help Tehran to alleviate the consequences of the American sanctions” and could communicate:“The Swiss authorities succeeded in carrying out a first official transaction within the framework of SHTA at the end of July 2020.”8
   This contribution to supplying the Iranian population with essential products is in keeping with Swiss humanitarian tradition.

Swiss protective power mandates – more than just mail carrier services

Switzerland has been representing US interests vis-à-vis Iran since 1980, i.e. since the two states broke off diplomatic relations after the removal of the Shah, who was closely associated with the US, and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny. Switzerland also represents Iranian interests in Egypt and Canada as well as the mutual interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia and those of Russia and Georgia. The homepage of the FDFA (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) states: “The protection of foreign interests is part of Switzerland’s ‘good offices’. After a ‘Golden Blossom’ in the Second World War, Switzerland as a protecting power now holds seven mandates. And as a protecting power, Switzerland takes over some of the consular and/or diplomatic tasks when two states break off relations in whole or in part. Thanks to the protecting power, the states can maintain minimal relations and the protecting power grants consular protection to nationals in the respective other state.9
   In the Swiss embassy in Tehran, for example, a “Foreign Interest Section” has been set up to provide consular services to US citizens living in or travelling to Iran. For example, Swiss embassy employees apply for US passports at the US embassy in Bern, register births, marriages and deaths, and pass on applications for social security cards or pension benefits to the US authorities. If the American and the Iranian government wants to communicate with each other, they do so in encrypted form via the Swiss Embassy.10
   The fact that protective power mandates are often referred to as “postal services” does not quite do them justice. The quiet, unspectacular aid services are an important part of the good offices, along with media-pregnant assistance for negotiations or with prisoner exchanges.

Negotiations in international Geneva as a future perspective

Nevertheless, as a Swiss citizen, you can certainly aim higher, as did Councillor of States Thomas Minder after his return from Tehran. In talks with the Iranian government on 7 September, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis and Ambassador Markus Leitner had “presented ideas on how Switzerland could maintain communication between the USA and Iran”. Cassis added that Switzerland never sets the agenda between the US and Iran anyway, it can only “gently influence it”.11
   In an interview with swissinfo, Councillor of States Minder said that Switzerland’s role as a mediator in the region could be expanded: “One talks to each other, one signals one’s readyness, but it would take a little more courage to bring Iran and the USA to the table, more proactivity”12
   Current Concerns asked Thomas Minder for more details (see interview).  •


1  «Bundesrat Ignazio Cassis reist nach Teheran». Medienmitteilung des Bundesrats of 1 September 2020 (“Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis travels to Tehran”)
2  Leitner, Markus: «Die Schweiz und der Iran: traditionsreiche Länder mit einem starken Fokus auf der Zukunft». Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten EDA of 7 September 2020 (“Switzerland and Iran: traditional countries with a strong focus on the future”. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA)
3  Rhyn, Larissa. «Aussenminister Ignazio Cassis auf delikater Mission in Teheran», in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung vom 8 September 2020. (“Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis on delicate mission in Tehran”)
4  Rhyn, Larissa. «Aussenminister Ignazio Cassis auf delikater Mission in Teheran», in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 8 September 2020. (“Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis on delicate mission in Tehran”)
5  «Coronavirus und die Sanktionen. Der Iran braucht Hilfe, die USA blockieren». Torsten Teichmann, ARD of 31 March 2020 (“Coronavirus and the sanctions. Iran needs help, the USA is blocking”)
6  «Coronavirus und die Sanktionen. Der Iran braucht Hilfe, die USA blockieren». Torsten Teichmann, ARD of 31 March 2020 (“Coronavirus and the sanctions. Iran needs help, the USA is blocking”)
7  «Zahlungsmechanismus für humanitäre Lieferungen in den Iran steht kurz vor Implementierung». Medienmitteilung des Bundesrats of 30 January 2020 (“Payment mechanism for humanitarian supplies to Iran about to be implemented”)
8  «Zarif empfängt am 7. September Schweizer Aussenminister/100 Jahre diplomatische Beziehungen», in: Press TV/ParsToday deutsch of 4 September 2020 (“Zarif receives Swiss Foreign Minister on 7 September/100th anniversary of diplomatic relations”)
9  Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten EDA. Schutzmachtmandate (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA. Protective power mandates)
10  www.eda.admin.ch. Embassy of Switzerland - Foreign Interests Section Teheran
11 Rhyn, Larissa. «Aussenminister Ignazio Cassis auf delikater Mission in Teheran», in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 8 September 2020. (“Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis on delicate mission in Tehran”)
12 Rigendinger, Balz. «Wozu ‹Genève internationale›, wenn wir immer nur Briefträger spielen?», in: swiss-info of 8 September 2020.(“What is the point of ‘Genève internationale’ if we are always only  playing postmen?”)

Bringing the US and Iran around the table in Geneva

Interview with Council of States member Thomas Minder (independent, SH)

Current Concerns: Mr. Minder, after your trip to Tehran you expressed that Switzerland should take a more active role, for example by inviting the Presidents Rouhani and Trump to Geneva. Isn’t that “a size too big” for Switzerland?
Thomas Minder: We don’t have to make ourselves smaller than we are. “Genève internationale” in particular is predestined to address such problems. Good offices should not stop at “out of our league”.
   Such efforts are also very compatible with our philosophy of neutrality, as we do not take sides, either for one or the other side.

Do you also see protecting power mandates as an important function of Switzerland?
In any case, the protecting power mandate (in general as well as in Iran in particular) is by no means to be belittled, it enables us – as just demonstrated – to enter into a dialogue with such states, which would otherwise be more difficult. But: We can and should use this “shoe in the door” to achieve even more. We are not endangering anything. And Switzerland is highly respected in Iran, which I experienced impressively myself.

Can’t it have a negative impact on possible successes of good offices if everything is in the media the next day?
You have to differentiate: As a parliamentarian, I am relatively free, I do not represent official Switzerland, but rather am part or representative of the people, society and the economy. So I shouldn’t attach too much “diplomatic weight” to my statements, as I’m not at all a diplomat (otherwise Federal Councilor Cassis would have chosen another parliamentarian). Furthermore, these few public statements (only two journalists were allowed to accompany us, from the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” and from the SRF) are only the tip of the iceberg. Everything we discussed during these three days, in conversations that sometimes lasted hours (from small talk to business, from environmental issues to human rights), is not publicly reported. I also do not think that it is counterproductive if I state publicly that I wish to bring the USA and Iran to the same table in Geneva, for example. That should actually be the aim of all diplomacy.

(Interview by Marianne Wüthrich)

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