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World Views: The Role of Switzerland in U.S.-Iranian Relations (Apr 23, 2012)
Since the breaking of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran following the 1979/1980 hostage crisis, Switzerland has bridged the diplomatic and political gap between Washington and Tehran.  Deputy Chief of Mission at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C. Guillaume Scheurer joins Joshua Landis and Afshin Marashi for a conversation on the current diplomatic impasse between Iran and the United States.


JOSHUA LANDIS, HOST: Welcome to World Views. Here today with us, we have the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Swiss Embassy, Guillaume Scheurer, and with him is Afshin Marashi, the new Farzaneh Chair of Iranian Studies here at the University of Oklahoma. Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure having you here today.


AFSHIN MARASHI: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

LANDIS: You have been D.C.M. at the Swiss Embassy here in Washington D.C., you were the D.C.M. in Tehran from 2001 to 2005, a very crucial time in U.S.-Iranian relations, in which you represented the United States in Iran, so you were doing two jobs essentially, you were representing the United States and Switzerland in Iran. But before we get to those more delicate things, let me ask you a little bit about Switzerland. What should Americans know about Switzerland that they don’t already know?

SCHEURER: Thank you very much. Switzerland may be rather small but quite an economic giant, and just to give you a very few numbers that I think might be quite telling. 2010 - Switzerland was the most important first direct foreign investor in the U.S., and last year in 2011, Switzerland was number two in terms of foreign direct investment in the U.S., so Swiss companies create roughly, directly, half a million jobs in the U.S., and indirectly around 800,000 jobs in the U.S., so we are quite an important actor in the U.S. in terms of foreign investment. But we also not only have foreign investment but we also a country that imports a lot of goods, a lot of goods from the U.S. in particular. For instance, the U.S. exports more goods to Switzerland than in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden combined. So the tiny Switzerland, 8 million inhabitants, is quite an important importer of U.S. goods and also of course even more so of U.S. services.

LANDIS: Let me take a follow up question to that. Switzerland is known for its banking, and is known for its secrecy.  On the one hand, Americans like it, because they like to have their money in Switzerland, and on the other hand the government has been working on Switzerland to undo a lot of those secrecy laws. Where does it stand today? To what extent can the United States peer into the bank accounts of American citizens in Switzerland, and to what extent can you still keep them secret?

SCHEURER: There are negotiations going on, so I cannot go into very much detail and I have to leave it up to the negotiator to solve this issue, but as you mentioned, we have indeed a rather small issue between the IRS and the Department of Justice and the Swiss legal system. Basically, it is the confrontation of two legal systems, and now we are just trying to find a compromise and an agreement. We have and we think it’s important for personal freedom, some secrecy for our banking laws and we will definitely find a solution that is in the interest of both countries.

MARASHI: Maybe I can ask you a little bit about Switzerland’s role inside Iran, and really the mechanics of how Switzerland operates as intermediary of sorts between the United States and Iran. Some people may know, many people may not know that one of the casualties of the 1979 Iranian Revolution was U.S.-Iranian relations, which came to a very dramatic end of following the hostage crisis of that period, and since that time the United States has not had an embassy in Iran, and what is Switzerland’s role in a sort of filling the vacuum of the United States?

SCHEURER: You’re right; obviously you don’t have an embassy, but also jokingly, I like to say to my American colleagues that you do have an embassy in Tehran, that’s the Swiss embassy, because in 1980 and the break up of diplomatic relations you asked us, the Swiss Confederation to be your protecting power in Tehran, and we gladly and are very honored to do so.  So [for] thirty two years we have been your protecting power in Tehran and representing your interests, and this encompasses basically two main tasks: one is the consular affairs, including consular of protections, and for instance the very well-known example of the three hikers and the other aspect of this mandate is diplomatic and political work of being the messenger, the official channel between Tehran and Washington, and Washington and Tehran.

MARASHI: You mentioned the hikers, can you talk about that specific event a few years ago or a couple of years I think, when some American hikers were arrested by the Islamic Republic and detained for a period of time? What was Switzerland’s role in securing the release of these hikers?

SCHERUER: This is exactly the kind of service that the Swiss diplomats are doing on behalf of the U.S.A.  After their arrest, we immediately contacted Iranian authorities to have access to them acting exactly as a U.S. general consulate or embassy would do in search a similar case, and then we have been a very helpful in securing their release in and liaising between Iranian authorities and American authorities in ensuring the freedoms for those hikers, including consular visits. But here again, we have to see that in a very global perspective.  We are indeed the official channel, the official protecting power, but there is no request on our side to have an exclusive right, either in that case or in any other cases, we are at the disposal of Washington to act when it seems to be in their interests, and it’s not a beauty contest between states.  If another state has another additional value that would release the hikers, for instance, then we would cooperate with that specific state, and in the case of the hikers, there are many, many actors that have been involved, state and non-state actors, for the release of the hikers, and we have been very gladly cooperating with everybody for the release for those three young children.

LANDIS: Let me ask you about the faceoff between the United States and Iran today over the nuclear issue. We are in the midst of a presidential campaign; most of the Republican candidates have called for possible invasion if Iran does not stop its nuclear enriching power. Can you give us some insight into what’s really going on here?

SCHEURER: That is a little bit outside or completely outside the mandate. I mean the mandate, the Swiss mandate, or the protecting power mandate absolutely has nothing to do with the nuclear discussion, and I have to be very clear on that. The mandate is not a mediation mandate, it’s not a go-between, or anything of this kind.  It’s really based upon instruction from Washington to do something or to deliver a message. Now, it doesn’t prevent the Swiss Confederation to have views, of course, and we are part of this world and we are probably the most globalized country on the world to look at what are the consequences of what this nuclear crisis upon our interests and the world and the peace in the world. So, frankly speaking, we are just glad that the negotiations have restarted.  It’s not conducive to any solution to be silent, not to meet the other parties, and 13 months between negotiations is not any more negotiation. I mean, that’s not really the way you can solve an issue by meeting [once in over a year]. So, we are hoping for the best and at the same time we are not too optimistic, but the first meeting after such a long time can be very successful, but we trust both parties, the P5-plus-1 on the one hand, and Iran on the other hand, to come with the necessary flexibility to give the diplomatic room that they need to find a compromise, to find some solutions, to reestablish trust and I think that that is the first element of any solution. Trust, and maybe a step-by-step approach can be defined and agreed upon in Istanbul, or the meetings to follow Istanbul.

MARASHI: Well, that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about, is these kinds of negotiations there’s always a very careful diplomatic dance and the procedures; it’s very difficult to really know what’s happening as this unfolds. So for those of us who are watching this, reading the headlines, and are trying to see what’s happening in Istanbul with the negotiations, what should we be looking for? Is there some way to read the tea leaves to figure out how the negotiations proceed?

SCHEURER: It’s also difficult for us because we are obviously not a P5 and definitely not a P5-plus-1, and I like your expression of a diplomatic dance, and a dance that we have seen so far about the location in where we meet has been not very conducive, but it’s probably part of the warming up, and it also shows to what extent the parties have issues at stake, so it’s difficult to find a place to meet, it’s just showing how difficult it’s going to be to negotiate.

MARASHI: But why Istanbul? Why was Istanbul the city that they chose?

SCHEURER: Well, there are several reasons. They have met in different places previously, including in Switzerland, in Geneva, on two previous occasions. They could meet again in Geneva, and we have an open offer to all parties to meet whenever it’s useful for peace to meet in Geneva. Istanbul probably was booked because they were a candidate of diplomats have been pushing for Istanbul quite a lot and Turkey in the region is definitely an important actor. It’s perceived as rather neutral in the dispute, it’s not an EU country, and it’s a neighboring country of Iran, and has been involved politically as well as in the dispute with the 2009 agreements signed with Brazil in Tehran. So it’s defiantly a good actor with good access to Iranians, and can help to be not only the host country of the talks, but also hopefully playing a kind of background diplomatic activity to solve the issue.

LANDIS: Let me ask you a little about the geopolitical, the larger blocks behind this Iran affair.  Russia, China, and to a certain extent India, have been protective of Iran. They have vetoed efforts by American and the EU to condemn Syria, an ally of Iran, in the United Nations Security Council. Is this just echoes of the Cold War? What’s going on? Why did China and Russia line up behind Iran and are protective of it?

SCHEURER: I don’t know if they would agree with your assessment. I think that what we have witnessed so far since 2003 when the first elements of the nuclear program started to service in Iran is a strong willingness by the U.S. and increasingly so, to go towards Iran with a unified front at the UN security level, and I think they have been quite successful in their endeavor, and so far there have been a number of resolutions, more than five I think, that have been all been but one unanimously adopted by the P5, but also by the fifteen members of the United Nations Security Council.  So globally we can witness a very united front of the international community to have sanctions against the nuclear program of Iran. So that’s at the UN level. I think there are legitimate concerns for this program to have transparency, the respect from the NPT and the different agreements, and to facilitate the work the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, the agency in Vienna. And this is the multilateral level, and then you have bilateral, unilateral level of sanctions that have been adopted by Washington, but also by the EU and by individual countries following the steps initiated by either the U.S.A or the EU.  And Russia and China, for reasons that have to do with also with internal policy, have never been in favor of unilateral sanctions. For them, the UN Security Council is the only legitimate body to take sanctions, and they don’t like the unilateral sanctions.  So they have stopped at the level of the UN Security Council, they have not endorsed and followed up unilateral sanctions like other states have done but nevertheless, it’s quite successful when we see, as you mentioned, how difficult it is sometimes to have an agreement at the level of the P5 to see nevertheless this united front by the P5 and the EU vis-à-vis Iran, is quite a successful achievement.

LANDIS: You spent four years in Iran. Americans have not been going to Iran. We know so little about the country. Tell us about something about your four years, about your impressions, not only of the political system, but of the people, that may surprise Americans, or that we don’t think about often that maybe we should think about.

SCHEURER: There are many many things. I guess your level of intelligence on Iran is quite good, but at the same time is obviously tainted by internal political considerations, and in the media, maybe not always is the best image that has been transmitted by the media about Iran. Iran is a big country, it’s a regional power, it’s at the center or between the Middle East and Asia, between the warm seas, and the South Caucasus of Central Asia, and so it’s absolutely central, it has 75 million inhabitants so it’s quite a big country, very economically powerful with amazingly important oil and gas reserves. And the people are very educated, they are very proud, and they are very nationalistic, they have 7,000 years of history behind them, and you feel this sense of time and history. They are very hospitable as well, very warm people that I met both in Tehran or in the countryside and I’ve always been amazingly welcomed. Maybe just a few figures, or  a few facts that might surprise American audiences.  It’s a very young country, 70% of the population is below the age of 30, so it’s a very young population. This means this populations of young people, have not witnessed directly or indirectly either the revolution, or most of them, the Iran-Iraq War. But still they have memories, the tradition of this revolution and impact of this revolution and war still affect this young generation, but they are highly educated. The higher educational system in Iran is amazingly competitive, they are very strong in different fields but also in technology, innovation, research, and development, very good universities, technological universities like MIT or at least almost to that level and it’s also in my view more diverse. There are different views expressed, and one of the roles of the Supreme Leader is to arbitrate a little bit between different factions within the regime, but always with the purpose of all those factions can nevertheless always unite with the idea to preserve the Islamic Revolution. That’s the highest priority.

LANDIS: Mr. Guillaume Scheurer, it’s been a real pleasure having you here today. Thank you.

SCHEURER: My pleasure. Thank you very much.



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