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US official calls for Swiss sanctions on Iran

The US wants Switzerland to support UN-backed sanctions against Iran to try to stop its uranium enrichment Keystone

In his role as a White House official, Kurt Volker has helped reinvigorate the United States' outreach to Europe since the re-election of President George Bush.

Volker tells swissinfo that Switzerland continues to play an important role in representing American interests in Iran but the time is right to support United Nations resolutions on Iran and start imposing sanctions.

He describes the signing of a gas deal between a Swiss company and Iran in March as a “mistake” and says cooperation among states is key in today’s “dangerous world”.

There are renewed reports that the US government is considering opening a diplomatic outpost in Tehran in what would be a major diplomatic policy change. Switzerland has represented Washington’s interests in Iran since 1979.

A former advisor to Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council, Volker followed her to the State Department in 2005 where he currently serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

swissinfo: Secretary Rice described US-Swiss agreements signed in 2006 as “a programme for intensified cooperation” when she met Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last year. What does the US see as priorities in this closer dialogue?

Kurt Volker: The US has a strong relationship with Nato and the European Union and we needed to strengthen our relationship with Switzerland. Today, areas of cooperation are many and varied between the US and Switzerland. I would cite counter-terrorism, regional crises such as in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and our support of democracy and human rights.

It’s a complex and dangerous world and there are a lot of issues to work together. One priority is the phenomenon of violent extremism that is often cloaking itself as a form of Islam, although it is not true Islam. It’s something we see in immigrant populations in Europe and in some regions in the Muslim world such as Iran.

swissinfo: As a representative of US interests in Iran, what role does Switzerland play?

K.V.: There are two issues here. First, there is the role of the protecting power, that is to say that Switzerland represents a diplomatic home and provides the diplomatic framework for pursuing American interests that come up. For example, Switzerland recently helped in getting information about a US citizen who had disappeared in Iran. That’s an important role and Switzerland plays it very effectively.

Second, there is the issue of our policy toward Iran, and there, there are some differences of view. The UN Security Council has voted three times to put in place sanctions against Iran to try to dissuade Iran to enrich uranium and develop a nuclear weapon. The US and the EU have applied sanctions on Iran. So, we would like to see Switzerland adopt a position of supporting the UN resolutions on Iran.

swissinfo: In March, a Swiss firm signed a gas supply deal with Iran, which the US embassy in Bern later said violated the spirit of the UN sanctions. Do you see the deal as diminishing Switzerland’s neutrality?

K.V.: When the rest of the international community is putting pressure on Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the gas deal sends the opposite message. We think it’s a mistake, but in terms of neutrality, I don’t think that Switzerland is becoming an ally of Iran. So no, it’s not affecting the role of Switzerland as an intermediary.

swissinfo: Swiss public opinion of the US is low, due to the invasion of Iraq and the treatment of prisoners of war and terrorism suspects. Is there a gap in human rights policy between the US and Switzerland?

K.V.: The US is largely defined by the problems it’s trying to deal with, whether it’s Iraq, Palestinians issues, or others. That’s what gives the US a negative image. But we are also one of the most vibrant democracies and multicultural societies in the world.

What we have to do is to try to explain ourselves and the values we are acting upon. As far as Iraq is concerned, there were differences about the war but there is very little debate today that we must help the Iraqi people and government build a democracy that is stable in the heart of the Middle East.

On human rights, our view is that neither the domestic legislative framework nor the laws of armed conflict are adequate when it comes to fighting bodies that are organised and do kill people, that are not states but can carry an attack at the level of a state. It’s a legal area that needs further work and development. In the meantime, the US is party to the UN conventions. We don’t torture, we don’t transport for the purpose of torture. I would add that we’ve had international observers come to Guantánamo who have compared it to normal prison facilities.

swissinfo: The biggest crisis in US and Swiss relations has been the fall-out over the Holocaust-era dormant accounts in Switzerland. What did the American side learn from it?

K.V.: It was a difficult issue but a settlement has taken place. The issue has no bilateral impact today and I think that what we have learned is that strong friends can work together to handle difficult issues.

swissinfo, Marie-Christine Bonzom in Washington

Switzerland and the US have a shared history of democratic values: the US Articles of Confederation were modeled after the former Swiss alliance of 13 sovereign states, and the Swiss were inspired by the American Constitution when they formed the world’s second federal state in 1848.

Switzerland opened consulates in Washington and New York in 1822 and established its first embassy outside Europe in Washington in 1882. It currently represents American interests in Iran and Cuba.

Since 2005 a number of agreements have been signed including ones to strengthen bilateral relations, combat terrorism and create a trade and investment forum. Since 2001 the two countries have also maintained regular contact at parliamentary level through the Friends of Switzerland Caucus in the US with 29 members and its counterpart in the Swiss parliament.

An estimated one million Americans today have Swiss roots. Around 460,000 Swiss emigrated to the US between 1700 and 2003 and over 70,000 Swiss citizens, over 10% of Swiss expatriates, live in the US.

Kurt Volker has served as second-in-command of the US State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs since July 2005 where he works with organisations such as Nato and the EU on facing global challenges.

He has previously worked with the National Security Council, helped work to reinvigorate US outreach to Europe following the November 2004 presidential elections, and was deputy director of the Private Office of then-Nato Secretary-General George Robertson where he took primary responsibility for Balkans peacekeeping, defence and nuclear planning.

Volker worked on foreign policy matters for Senator John McCain in 1997 and was formerly an official at the US Embassy in Budapest. Before joining the Foreign Service in 1988, he served for two years as an analyst at the CIA.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR