Switzerland is ready to facilitate dialogue between the United States and Iran, says Swiss diplomat Livia Leu Agosti, the only woman ambassador in Tehran.
But in a written interview with swissinfo, she cautions that any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran will take time.
Leu Agosti, who has been in her post since the beginning of the year, voices concerns over Iran's difficult human rights situation. She says she remains convinced that dialogue with the Iranian authorities is the best way to bring about change in this area.
swissinfo: Washington and Tehran have taken steps towards dialogue over the past few months. How do you see relations developing?
Livia Leu Agosti: The two countries have taken a carefully positive approach towards each other. As first steps, the two sides are in the process of changing their established vocabulary as well as allowing informal contacts.
If we still see and hear mixed signals from both sides, this is only normal after almost 30 years without relations. Any rapprochement will take time.
swissinfo: What role is Switzerland playing in the "dialogue" between the two countries, or what role could it play, beyond the fact that Bern represents US interests in Iran?
L.L.A.: Switzerland has been representing US interests in Iran for almost 30 years. This role contains two sides: providing consular services to American citizens living in Iran on the one hand, assuring a confidential channel of communication between the two countries on the other.
This so-called Protecting Power mandate is part of the classical good offices of Switzerland. If the two sides wish it, we would be ready to facilitate any further dialogue.
swissinfo: Bern has proposed a "Swiss paper" as a contribution to a diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue. Is Swiss diplomacy still active in this field?
L.L.A.: In coordination with all the parties involved Switzerland developed ideas on how to bring both sides to the negotiating table. In this context we were very happy to host the Geneva talks last July in which, for the first time, a high official from the US State Department took part.
Over the past months the P5+1 (the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany) have been trying to adapt their approach to the new American Iran policy which is only beginning to take shape.
Once the future format of talks becomes clearer, Switzerland could make contributions to the process, should all sides wish it.
swissinfo: Iran's presidential election takes place in June. What changes do you expect if a reformer wins?
L.L.A.: The position of the Iranian president is essentially that of a head of government. Contrary to other countries, the president is not the highest instance in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The main directions the country takes are given by the supreme or religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has the last word on all important issues, such as the relationship with the US and the nuclear issue, and any president will be bound by the direction he gives.
While the supreme leader rules largely behind the scenes, the president is the more visible face of the Islamic Republic. In this sense his person and his personality are important namely for the image of the country.
swissinfo: Iran continues to execute minors, to tolerate stoning, to violate freedom of expression and the rights of minorities, despite regular dialogue between Bern and Tehran on human rights issues. How worried are you about this situation?
L.L.A.: For Switzerland the respect of human rights is a priority. So yes, we are worried about the violations you have mentioned and continue to raise this issue with the authorities. Since 2003 we have had a human rights dialogue with Iran, as we do with some other countries.
Of course, this is never an easy topic of discussion as we don't see eye to eye on some basic questions but we are convinced that dialogue is the best way to advance the cause of human rights.
swissinfo: Do you think that Switzerland should put more pressure on the Iranian authorities?
L.L.A.: Switzerland is not a superpower and our strength is not built on might. Our trump card is international law and we are strong defenders of it.
We are very consistent in pointing out violations of international law wherever they occur and this objective approach has given us a lot of credibility. This makes it possible for us to raise critical questions – and to be listened to.
swissinfo: Is the upcoming vote in Switzerland on a minaret ban an issue in Iran?
L.L.A.: So far, the initiative on a minaret ban has not received much public attention. Like in all Muslim countries we have informed the authorities about our legal order, our political system of direct democracy and also about the goals and the background of this initiative.
While they understand that the initiative is not targeting mosques or Islam altogether, they do look at it as basically unfriendly towards Muslims.
swissinfo: You are one of the only women diplomats in Iran. Do you have difficulties in a society ruled by men? How do you deal with the obligation to wear the headscarf?
L.L.A.: I am actually the only woman ambassador in Iran, the former female representative from Sierra Leone having finished her assignment before my arrival.
So far, this position has certainly not been to my disadvantage. My treatment by the authorities has been respectful, professional and expeditious – I was able to present my credentials to the president within one month, which is almost a record.
As far as wearing the headscarf in public places is concerned, this is a legal obligation for any woman independent of her nationality, religion or rank.
I do understand why this obligation is being questioned but as a diplomat I am required to respect the laws of my country of residence.
swissinfo-interview: Federico Bragagnini
Switzerland has been representing the interests of the US in Iran since 1980.
Livia Leu Agosti is Swiss ambassador to Tehran, the only top female diplomat to Iran.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey made a controversial visit to Tehran last year to witness the signing of a gas deal between the Iranian government and a private Swiss energy company.
Last year, a high-ranking US official took part in talks between Iran and other major powers in Geneva.
Switzerland-Iran economic ties
Iran has been Switzerland's fourth-largest export market in the Middle East for the past two years.
Exports to Iran, mainly of machinery, pharmaceutical and agricultural products, were worth SFr846.6 million ($740.6 million) in 2008, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
Switzerland was among Iran's top 15 import partners in 2007.
Imports from Iran, mostly carpets and agricultural products, stood at SFr23.5 million last, down 39% on 2007.
Switzerland and Iran concluded bilateral accords on investment protection and double taxation as well as agreements on trade and air transport.