US ambassador sees key Swiss role with Iran

US Ambassador Donald Beyer, an avid hiker and climber, spoke to during a walk in the countryside near Bern

The United States ambassador to Bern says he is hopeful the Swiss will play a role in nuclear negotiations with Iran beyond hosting the talks.

This content was published on November 4, 2009 minutes

In a wide-ranging interview with one year after Barack Obama was elected US president, Donald Beyer said negotiations with the Islamic Republic are the "perfect place" for Swiss diplomats to help broker a deal as they did with Armenia and Turkey.

"Everyone in the world knows that accord would not have happened without Switzerland's leadership," Beyer said. "It's certainly not hard to imagine Switzerland playing a similar role in moving Iran toward a peaceful resolution."

That is a shift from just two years ago when former American ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton called a Swiss-backed plan to end the nuclear standoff with Iran "farcical".

During a walk up a mountain near the Swiss capital, Bern, Beyer, an avid hiker and climber, also spoke about Swiss banks under fire, Guantanamo detainees and why a strong Swiss franc is good for a global economic recovery. Ambassador Beyer, you've been here now for almost three months. What have you been doing?

Donald Beyer: We've been working with the foreign ministry on things as urgent as the American hikers arrested in Iran to hopefully working with the Swiss on the new Iran nuclear proposals. The Swiss and the US are also enormous economic partners. We have more American investment in Switzerland than in China, Russia, Brazil and India combined.

Certainly during the last ten years the US hasn't had the best reputation for listening. I see it as my responsibility to get around the country as much as I can and meet with ordinary Swiss and understand what they think, what they feel, what their ideas are. Do you know if Obama will come to Switzerland for an official state visit?

D.B.: I would very much like that to happen. To the best of my research, we've never had a US president come on a state visit to Switzerland. They've come to Geneva for the UN or to [the World Economic Forum meeting in] Davos. We are going to ask every month for the next couple of years. Obama said he would close Guantanamo Bay but we're fast approaching his own deadline and the camp isn't close to being shuttered. Will he close it, and if so, by when?

D.B.: He definitely will close it. It's proven to be harder than anyone has expected. Part of that reason is that it has been difficult to find countries willing to take the people that we intend to release. In the meantime Switzerland has been among the countries most generous to consider taking one or two or three or four of the detainees. Nothing formal has been decided yet. What do you think we can realistically expect to come out of the negotiations with Iran? Do the Swiss have a role beyond hosting the talks?

D.B.: President Obama has been very clear that we want Iran to take its rightful place as a leader in the world, political, economically, diplomatically, and that we want Iran to have full access to peaceful nuclear power. We're working so hard - with Switzerland as a leader - against nuclear proliferation to avoid an arms race.

Switzerland, sometimes at great costs, has tried to play a role in developing good, credible relationships with Iranian leaders. Certainly Switzerland is our protecting power. Ambassador Leu [Livia Leu-Agosti] is out there fighting for American citizens who are in trouble in Iran. I think it is a good sign that Switzerland hosted the last round of talks with Iran. This seems to be the perfect place with Switzerland and its active neutrality to play a role. But neutrality hasn't kept Switzerland from hitting some rough spots.

D.B.: Libya. Switzerland is a country that has long believed that dialogue, clear communications, honesty and good will go a lot farther than bombs and guns and sanctions. It's a tough situation. We would love to see the Swiss citizens returned to Switzerland and for Switzerland and Libya to have an improved relationship. Diplomats talk of excellent Swiss-American ties. Are relations really that good?

D.B.: There is always progress to be made but I think they are very good. Clearly there was stress last year when the IRS decided they had to ask UBS for the names of these Americans who were cheating on their taxes. Unfortunately I think far too many Swiss saw this as an assault on their leading bank and banking system. The Americans saw it as Americans breaking American laws, cheating other honest American tax payers, and using a financial institution overseas to make this happen. We have a new double taxation treaty in place for the years to come which means this issue should never come back. Does that mean the US authorities will not go after other Swiss banks?

D.B.: There has been no suggestion in the time that I've been here that the IRS and the US intend to go after any other bank. In fact, what I've seen alternatively is Swiss banks looking at UBS and saying we don't want to be in that situation. Let's make sure that if there are people who look like they are violating the letter or the spirit of the law, let's work right away to make sure we are not host to that. Is Switzerland still perceived as an attractive, ethical place to do business?

D.B.: I very much think it's perceived as a friendly place to do business. One of the easiest metrics is to look at how many US companies have chosen to locate here. It's a very honest, ethical, principled place to set roots and a place where your global employees will want to live. We still have 9.7 to 9.8 per cent unemployment. There aren't a lot of people growing their businesses right now but I think Switzerland will continue to be a very attractive place to grow. The franc was at nearly 1-to-1 with the dollar last week, while the euro hit the $1.50 barrier. Europeans worry the strong currency could quash any nascent economic recovery.

D.B.: Part of me is pleased that the dollar is weak because that's better for American exports. Growth in the American economy is essential for the global economy to get back on track. Americans are the great consumers of the world and when Americans stop consuming, many other nations stop producing.

On the other hand, I think the primary driver of the dollar's weakness has been how much America has been overspending and over borrowing from overseas. One of America's highest strategic priorities must be energy independence. Do that and all of a sudden we don't need to be borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars from China every day.

President Obama has moved us in that direction in some very bold ways. You can look down the road not too many years and see us importing no or very little overseas oil products. That in turn, strengthens our economy and the US dollar. But we have to get from here to there and in that process the euro and Swiss franc are going to be stronger than perhaps those domestic economies would like.

Tim Neville,

In brief

Donald Beyer was appointed US ambassador to Switzerland by President Barack Obama in June 2009. He took up his duties on August 15.

Beyer, who was born in Italy, owns a successful car dealership business near Washington, D.C., and served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1990-1998.

He headed Obama's campaign fundraising efforts for the Mid-Atlantic region and raised at least $500,000 for the Democrat's presidential bid.

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Ambassador comments

On Obama's time in office so far: "Brave. Job one has been to bring the economy out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. It's not over yet but we're moving in the right direction. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has said they were going to bring health care to every American and now we have one who is finally going to do it."

On agriculture: "Swiss agriculture is still family driven, very intense, very organic. That's different from in America where you have huge factory farms that are very productive but with a whole different concept. Both countries protect their farmers pretty strongly. This is one of the most serious impediments to a free trade agreement between the US and Switzerland, but this is something that both societies can learn from and work together on."

On Roman Polanski's arrest as an attempt to curry favour with Washington: "I think that is needlessly conspiratorial and Machiavellian. I don't think Switzerland needed to [curry favour]. I think it has pleased the American public that Polanski was arrested but I don't think the American public correlates in any way UBS with Polanski and I doubt senior leaders in the Swiss government do either."

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