As tensions and oil prices rise in the Middle East, Switzerland’s role as intermediary between the US and Iran has returned to the spotlight, with the foreign ministry offering its good offices. But what are these good offices, and why is neutral Switzerland getting involved?
“When two countries declare war against each other, the first thing they do is break diplomatic relations. That’s the silliest thing they can do – but that’s what always happens,” Philippe Welti, a retired former Swiss ambassador to Iran, told swissinfo.ch in 2013.
“As soon as two countries break diplomatic relations, the need to look after relations becomes more urgent since you’re not doing it yourself. You need a third party to do it and since Switzerland was not party to any of the battles in the 1940s, it was seen as particularly appropriate to ask the Swiss to look after various interests.”
This is still the case, the foreign ministry explains. “Switzerland can build bridges where others are prevented from doing so, because it does not belong to any power bloc and does not pursue a hidden agenda”.
This bridge-building takes the form of good officesexternal link and protecting power mandatesexternal link, which the ministry says “refers to all diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives by a third country or a neutral institution whose purpose is to resolve a bilateral or international conflict or to bring the parties to the negotiating table”.
In practice, this means being a communication channel. Welti said three conditions were necessary for success. “It has to work technically, so every hour of the day and night messages should be able to pass through it. Also it has to be completely confidential. And it has to be completely unbiased and loyal to the message – because when it’s an oral message there’s always the potential for the third party to change it. Nothing of me should be in the message.”
Whether it’s acting as a messenger between two non-speaking states or trying to actively mediate and broker a resolution, Switzerland’s good offices have a long tradition.
The alpine nation first acted as a protecting power in the 19th century, when it looked after the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Dukedom of Baden in France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
The “golden period” for so-called protecting power mandates was during the Second World War: by 1943-44, Switzerland was juggling 219 mandates for 35 states.
The Cold War also resulted in demand for Swiss services, with 24 mandates held in 1973. Since then, however, the number of mandates has dropped. The country currently exercises seven protecting power mandatesexternal link: Iran in Egypt, the US in Iran, Russia in Georgia, Georgia in Russia, Iran in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia in Iran and since June 2019 Iran in Canada.
Switzerland can either offer to act as a go-between on its own initiative or can fulfil this function at the request of the parties concerned, provided that all those involved agree. For example, Switzerland announced in April it would represent the interests of the US in Venezuela under a “good offices” agreement, but this requires Venezuela’s approval before it can come into effect.