By Faramarz Davar
September 16, 2020
Of all the European countries Iran has contact with, the Iranian-Swiss relationship has some of the most striking features of all.
At several points in the history of contemporary Iran, Switzerland has provided diplomatic support to both the Shah’s government and the post-1979 Islamic regime. Following the Islamic Revolution, Switzerland refused to return the properties Mohammad Reza Shah owned in the country, in the face of intense pressure to do so from the fledgling new state. It also played host to Mehdi Bazargan, who served as Iran’s first prime minister in the provisional government, for medical treatment in the final days of his life. Ardeshir Zahedi, an ex-Iranian foreign minister and Iran’s last ambassador to the US in the 1960s and 70s, also lives in exile in Switzerland.
In 1988, a diplomatic scuffle broke out when American diplomats called Mohammad Hossein Malaek, Iran’s then-ambassador to Switzerland, a “terrorist” who had interrogated victims of the US embassy hostage crisis and should be deported. The Swiss authorities refused the request and Malaek retained his position for several more years.
This month, the centenary of Iran-Swiss relations passed with little fanfare except for the opening of a cultural exhibition in Tehran, in the presence of the Swiss foreign minister Ignacio Cassis, who emphasized the need to build bridges of “trust and communication”. The timing was inopportune: two days later, Swiss prosecutors announced a possible fresh investigation into the 1990 assassination on Swiss soil of Kazem Rajavi, the Islamic Republic’s first envoy to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, had been transferred to the Attorney General’s Office to be revisited in the context of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Messenger to the Islamic Regime
Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the Swiss foreign minister’s visit to Tehran had taken place on September 6: the 40th anniversary of Switzerland’s representing US interests in Tehran.
Switzerland operates as a middle-man between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic ties. This duty includes conveying letters and messages from Iran to the US. The volume of this correspondence is such that Swiss media has even referred to the country’s ambassador to Iran, Markus Leitner, as “Trump’s Swiss postman in Iran”.
In January, in the aftermath of the US assassination of Ghasem Soleimani, the late commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Swiss diplomats were summoned to Tehran to convey the authorities’ outrage to the Americans and the wider world. Since then the messages have been coming thick and fast. The content of these letters has not been publicly released.
Amid the unprecedented exchange of messages in the shadow of a military conflict, Islamic Republic officials appreciate having Swiss personnel as a safe channel through which to transmit their messages to the US. Although the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the a part of the Pakistani Embassy in the US, Iran also sent a response to a letter from US officials to Washington through its Swiss embassy.
Just One Letter Revealed in History of the ‘Postal Service’
There is, reportedly, an isolation room located within the Swiss embassy in Tehran in which officials use an encrypting device to receive US messages to the Islamic Republic. With the exception of the 22 months of Iran-US nuclear talks, in which the foreign ministers spoke directly to one another, this device has been the most stable method of communication between Iran and the United States for the past four decades. Because of the Swiss officials’ diligence it has retained its integrity and the content of the messages have never been leaked – except once, when the content of a letter was published in Tehran’s Ete’alat newspaper.
On August 31, 1980, in a letter to the then-Iranian prime minister Mohammad Ali Rajasi via the local Swiss charge d’affairs, the then-US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie said that with the death of Mohammad Reza Shah in August of that year: “A chapter in the history of Iran has been closed … and it is time to take a fresh look at Iran and the United States issues. The United States understands the reality of the Iranian revolution and the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.” Rajaei fulfilled a commitment he made to disclose the content of the letter eleven days later.
A Crucial Balancing Act – and Playing Host
Besides conveying messages, Switzerland has also been at pains to prevent armed conflict from breaking out between Iran and the United States. This has been successful in recent months, with Swiss officials quelling anger on both sides in Tehran and Washington when US president Donald Trump threatened to target 52 sites in Iran with strikes.
This channel of communication also insulated the two countries from tensions that could have led to all-out war in the early 2000s, after the US-led invasion to Iraq. At the time, then-president George Bush referred to the Islamic Republic as part of the “axis of evil” alongside North Korea and Iraq. Hassan Rouhani, who was then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had also said at the time: “Our assessment was that after the rapid fall of Baghdad, there comes the turn of Iran.”
Switzerland also mediated a ceasefire during the Iran-Iraq war. This failed, but the country did eventually host UN-mediated Iran-Iraq peace talks in Geneva. These talks did not lead to a peace treaty either, but did strengthen Switzerland’s political standing with the Islamic Republic.
Twenty-five years later, during the Iran-US nuclear talks, Switzerland played host to the two countries’ foreign ministers for months on end. The interim nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers, to suspend new sanctions against Iran for the first time, was reached in Switzerland.
What Happens Now?
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the two countries’ relations, the Swiss foreign minister visited both Isfahan and Tehran. Before meeting with officials, he said he would be trying to establish the basest minimum of direct contact between Iran and the United States. This, however, was swiftly rejected by officials of the Islamic Republic, saying the lifting of US sanctions a was a precondition for any direct contact.
For the past 40 years, Switzerland has filled the vacant space of the US embassy in Tehran as a channel of contact between Iran and the United States. As one of the world’s leading arms producers, it has also sought to fulfil the United States’ pre-revolutionary role in Iran by adopting a policy of “neutrality.”
Bilateral relations between Switzerland and Iran may come under strain in the months to come with the possible reopening of the Kazem Rajavi casefile. But the country still holds a crucial position in US-Iran relations: one neither party can afford to see it lose.