How Switzerland Helped Make The US-Iran Prisoner Swap Work


United States President Joe Biden has thanked Switzerland, along with Qatar, Oman and South Korea, for facilitating the September 18 prisoner swap between the US and Iran. We take a look at how Switzerland has helped build bridges between Washington and Tehran.  An Explainer.

What was Switzerland’s role in the prisoner swap?

Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis tweeted on September 18 that Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran “accompanied five US prisoners from Tehran to Doha”, where they were handed over to the US authorities. In another tweet, he welcomed the exchange as a “humanitarian gesture” that allowed the release of five American and five Iranian prisoners. “Switzerland has provided facilitation and is ready to continue to do so, in line with its long tradition of good offices,” Cassis wrote.

press releaseExternal link from the foreign affairs ministry said Switzerland also “facilitated the related transfer of frozen funds from South Korea to Iran”, adding that “the funds may only be used for humanitarian purposes”. According to media reports, the deal included the transfer of $6 billion (CHF5.3 billion) of Iranian money from restricted South Korean accounts to restricted accounts in Qatar. These accounts in Qatar will monitor the cash to ensure it is spent on humanitarian goods and not on items under US sanctions.

The foreign affairs ministry press release says Switzerland played a “major role” in the exchange process “by providing its good offices at the request of all the parties involved”.

What are Swiss good offices?

Swiss diplomacy has a long-standing tradition of trying to talk to all sides “to build trust”. “The aim of good offices is to resolve differences and conflicts between and within countries by political means,” says the foreign ministry. “Just trying to the keep channels of communication open is often crucial to preventing disputes from escalating.”

Switzerland notably holds a number of so-called protecting powers, where it represents the interests of countries that have broken off diplomatic relations with each other. The Alpine country, traditionally regarded as neutral, currently holds four protecting powers. Switzerland has represented US interests in Iran since 1980.  As well as representing the US in Iran, it also represents Russia in Georgia, Georgia in Russia, Iran in Egypt and Iran in Canada.

A protecting power mandate usually means taking on some of a state’s consular tasks, such as issuing visas. The mandated country can also facilitate diplomatic negotiations. 

Has Switzerland helped with other prisoner swaps?

This is not the first time Switzerland has helped with prisoner exchanges, including between the US and Iran. In 2019, it facilitated the swap of Xiyue Wang, a Sino-American man detained for three years in Iran, and Massoud Soleimani, detained in the United States, drawing thanks from former US President Donald Trump.

The five Americans freed from Iran last Monday made an emotional return to the US the following day. They include US-Iranian dual citizens Siamak Namazi and Emad Sharqi, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. The five were released after years in jail in Iran on what the US said were baseless charges for political leverage.

Five Iranians held in American jails mainly on charges of violating US sanctions were released in exchange. Out of the five, three chose not to go back to Iran.

What are Switzerland’s broader relations with Iran?

Neutral Switzerland has adopted UN and European Union (EU) sanctions against Iran imposed over the country’s nuclear activities and human rights violations. This includes banning the export of weapons, nuclear goods and surveillance equipment. It has also frozen financial assets of some Iranians linked to the government and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Alpine nation has come under pressure to follow tougher EU sanctionsExternal link imposed as a result of the Islamic regime’s crackdown on opposition after Mahsa Amini’s death in custody last year. However, it has not yet done so.

The Swiss foreign ministry saysExternal link that, as well as the various protecting powers related to Iran, bilateral relations between the two countries “focus on peace and security policy, human rights, the economy, science, sustainable development and migration”.

In 2020, Swiss good offices also helped set up a humanitarian aid channel for Iran. This allows Swiss-based companiesExternal link to send medicines and other vital goods to Iran despite US sanctions. 

What future for Swiss protecting powers?

Back at the end of 2019, Swiss former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Pascale Baeriswyl (now Bern’s ambassador to the UN) told SWI that Switzerland’s protecting powers had nearly doubled in recent years from four to seven at that time. “They come to us and want us to be the mediator,” she said, seeing it as a sign of troubled times because “there are a lot of hotspots in the world where countries are starting to downgrade their bilateral relations”.

The world is hardly in better shape now, but the number of Swiss protecting powers has gone down to four again. In the case of the dispute between Venezuela and the US, Washington agreed to a Swiss mandate in 2019, but Caracas never approved it. This year, Switzerland lost two protecting mandates for Saudi Arabia in Iran and Iran in Saudi Arabia, after a rapprochement between those two countries facilitated by China. Oman and Iraq were also involved, leaving Switzerland on the side-lines.

Swiss good offices have also been snubbed on several recent occasions. In March 2022, it sought to organise talks between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine, however, was hardly interested, and Russia preferred Turkey, where the talks finally took place. When Switzerland offered to take on protecting-power mandates for Ukraine and Russia, Russia again refused the offer. Moscow claims that Switzerland is no longer neutral after it imposed sanctions on Russia for the Ukraine war, in line with the EU.

Swiss Foreign Minister Cassis has repeatedly weighed in on discussions about Swiss neutrality with the argument that the country has a special role to play internationally. “The role of diplomacy, of bridge-builder, this is where we can offer added value to all other countries,” Cassis told Swiss public broadcaster SRFExternal link in February this year.

But for the moment, Switzerland’s role as mediator appears to be dwindling. If Russia manages to further expand its influence in GeorgiaExternal link, Swiss mandates for these countries may also come to an end in the medium term.

Source : SWI