Commentary: Amid brewing tensions and deadly strikes, intermediaries facilitate US-Iran diplomacy

Commentary: Amid brewing tensions and deadly strikes, intermediaries facilitate US-Iran diplomacy

Neutral third parties play a critical role in facilitating the conduct of diplomacy in harsh times, says Klaus W Larres.

Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani (right)
The US administration of President Donald Trump has been consistently hawkish on the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by President Hassan Rouhani (right). (Photos: AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina: Even countries that have broken ties with each other need to communicate in times of crisis and war.

That includes the US and Iran, which have not had an official way to talk directly to each other since President Jimmy Carter cut off diplomatic and consular relations in April 1980, as part of the Tehran embassy hostage crisis. The link has never been restored.

But international diplomacy has found an ingenious solution to the problem of communication between countries that have broken ties.


A third country, often a neutral nation, acts as a go-between, called the “protecting power”. For many years, for example, the Swedish have performed this role, acting on behalf of the United States in North Korea.

The Swedish Embassy in Beijing has been the intermediary between North Korea and other foreign countries which do not entertain diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Switzerland and its embassy in Tehran have played the same role between the US and Iran. Since May 21, 1980, they have been the protecting power for the US in Iran.

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The Swiss were called on to perform this role during the recent crisis, Reuters News Service reported on Jan 3 that:

A Swiss diplomat delivered a message from the United States to Iran on Friday over the US killing of senior Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, the Swiss foreign ministry said.

"The chargé d’affaires was informed of Iran’s position and in turn delivered the message of the United States,” the ministry said in an emailed response to a Reuters query, without elaborating.

People walk off a plane carrying three Iranian-Americans, who left Tehran under a prisoner swap, af
People walk off a plane carrying three Iranian-Americans, who left Tehran under a prisoner swap, after it landed at Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland January 17, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

The Iranians have asked fellow Muslim nation Pakistan to be their liaison country with the US.

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These arrangements have provided US and Iranian citizens with normal consular services for passport and visa issues and matters relating to health, adoptions and even negotiating the return of citizens imprisoned by the other country.


More importantly, these intermediaries have enabled politicians from the two estranged countries to keep in touch diplomatically.

Any message President Trump wishes to convey to his Iranian counterpart, or any urgent information Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wishes to pass on to Secretary of State Pompeo, will be transmitted through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran or the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, DC.

Thus, any exchanges regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, US sanctions on Iran, military maneuvers and perhaps even sometimes information on forthcoming airstrikes tend to go through either Switzerland or Pakistan.

Late last year, for instance, Switzerland brokered a carefully negotiated prisoner swap between Iran and the US.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announce sanctions on Iran during bri
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces new sanctions on Iran in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

The air strike on General Soleimani, however, came as a total surprise to both Iran and Switzerland as well as the rest of the world.

Some information about the Iranian counter-strikes may well have been passed on to the US via Switzerland, but this is difficult to verify at this stage.

Unusually, Switzerland has also taken the initiative to open a humanitarian channel to Iran to provide Iranians with food, medicine and other essential supplies that have been affected by US sanctions. It will begin in the next few months.

This initiative has received US endorsement, though the US intends to make sure that Iran’s Central Bank is not involved and that no payments to the Iranian government occur.

Klaus W Larres is Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor and Adjunct Professor of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.