Switzerland’s Mediator Status on an International Playing Field: What is keeping Iran and the US from Violent War

Markus Leitner and Khamenei

Iran and the US have been on less than friendly terms for a while now, ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 propelled an already strong Anti-Americanism sentiment within a significant majority of the nation. In the form of ‘good offices’ and ‘protecting power mandates’ (PPMs), Switzerland has taken on the responsibility to represent US interests in Iran neutrally. 

Good offices have the purposes of bringing parties in conflict to a table and to help resolve problems. PPMs meanwhile work under good offices, with the protecting power representing and fulfilling diplomatic duties for the protected party. Switzerland became involved in 1980 when the US broke off diplomatic ties with Iran. This was in reaction to Iran declaring itself the Islamic State and the US hostage crisis in Tehran, lasting 444 days. While Switzerland represents the US in Iran, Switzerland does not represent Iran in the US. 

Most recently, Switzerland has increased its efforts in Tehran, with US President Trump taking a “maximum pressure” approach on Iran. 2020 in particular started with measures seen as harsh by many; a fatal drone strike which killed Iranian General Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and leader of its Quds Force, responsible for international and clandestine operations. 

The decision to look into Switzerland’s mediator status in the context of Iran and the US is propelled by my interest in Switzerland’s neutrality and its use for good sans economic profit. I’ve personally lived in the country for a total of 5 years, consistently impressed by the cultural dedication to maintaining its neutrality. While ironic, it is important to recognize my personal bias and inclination for Switzerland as the place I call home.

The individual who is key to successful mediation between the two nations is Markus Leitner, the Swiss Ambassador to Iran. Leitner is responsible for the PPM of the US in Iran. Most recently he orchestrated a prisoner swap in December of 2019 and June of 2020, and significantly de-escalated the looming violent stand-off after Soleimani’s assassination.

While Leitner is directly involved and responsible for the channel, Leitner represents the Swiss government’s dedication to the PPM. A father of two, Leitner rose to his current position in government when the Foreign Ministry tasked him with changing Switzerland’s reputation as a harbor for blood diamonds. Since then Leitner has worked in South Africa, China, and as an Ambassador to Egypt in 2013, the height of its crisis that began with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. 

His work in Tehran has been key in maintaining the peace between a world superpower – the US, and one regional superpower – Iran.  After Soleimani’s assassination, Iran was in the position to retaliate. With Switzerland being brought into the picture, the US sent the message that should Iran retaliate in equal force, the US would unleash its fury.

Equally, the prisoner swaps orchestrated by Leitner are key; such moments are a demonstration that all hope is not lost between the two rivals. While the drone strike was extreme, the threat of unleashing the US’s true extent of possible violent fury on Iran remains too big of a threat for a nation so limited in allies. As per Leitner, the worst decision in conflict yet the most common, is cutting communication channels – a perspective reflective of the general Swiss sentiment. 

Leitner’s work in the months leading up to the prisoner swaps included various trips to the US, relaying information between Tehran and Washington. All messages are passed through Switzerland, with the prisoner swap also occurring on Swiss grounds. Leitner’s work includes maintaining an air of diplomatic professionalism – an important aspect for Iran and the US, where nation leaders frequently trade what are seen by many as petty spats. As such, it is key that Leitner, or a figure of similar calm and collected stature, remain in place between Iran and the US. 

As for the future, Switzerland’s stance remains unusual. As the country is not technically an ally of neither Iran nor the US, Switzerland’s neutrality is unlikely to change. However, the US’s general reputation has found itself in decline over recent months under Trump’s “America First” approach. As a result, much of the EU and Sunni Muslim nations, which otherwise remain non-critical of the US, find themselves doubting the administration’s capabilities. 

Seen as the aggressor by many, the US November presidential elections will prove to be defining in potential future relationships between the rivals. However, given the current political climate between the two, it is unlikely for there to be a drastic change that would see Switzerland’s services no longer required in the next year. Even with a change in the US President, the political wounds inflicted upon each other will take time to heal.

Johanna Katherina Jakobi

Research and Analysis Intern