Iran and Switzerland: a special relationship


Official visit of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2018. The then President of the Confederation, Alain Berset, receives him with military honors. © Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Iran’s deadly crackdown on protest movements underscores the economic and diplomatic ties that unite Tehran with Bern.

This content was published on November 09, 2022 – 12:30

Protests span 200 cities. People are chanting “Death to the dictator!”, echoing the cry that toppled the shah in 1979. But we don’t know if, or to what extent, these protest movements will shake the regime.

A change of power would also be “in Switzerland’s interest”, says Kijahn Espahangizi, a historian at the University of Zurich. According to him, opening up the Iranian market would offer Switzerland “incredible opportunities”. A situation for which Bern has already prepared itself.

The Iranian market is 86 million well-educated people, the second largest natural gas resource in the world and state coffers full of oil money. And if Switzerland went there in 1979 to negotiate agreements with the mullahs, it was because it imagined sowing the seeds of businesses that would one day flourish.

However, the harvest never happened because of the sanctions.


Former Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey (left) visited Tehran in 2008 to seal a multibillion dollar gas purchase. But the transaction ended up being canceled for political reasons. Keystone / Hasan Sarbakhshian

The first ones were decided by the United States in 1995, then by the UN in 2006 and later also by the EU. Philippe Welti, Switzerland’s former ambassador to Tehran, calls the cascade of sanctions “a dominant event” in the history of relations between the two countries. He is now president of the Swiss-Iran Chamber of Commerce.

But where does the particularly close relationship between small, freedom-loving Switzerland and this regime, which defends values ​​so different from its own, come from? So different from freedom, democracy and equality?

An undemocratic structure

Iran’s theocracy was firmly established after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Current President Ebrahim Raisi, a dedicated cleric, works under the watchful eye of Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been in office for 33 years. The latter also has the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, which controls Parliament.

An apparatus of repression guarantees calm in the Islamic theocracy. Until 2022, the Revolutionary Guard, the vice police and the security police always managed to contain the manifestations of discontent.

Iran ranks 150th out of 180 on corruption indexexternal link of Transparency International. The country is also at the bottom of the democracy indexexternal link: 154th out of 167.

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Iran wants to build nuclear weapons, destroy Israel and intervene in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It enabled and fueled dictator Bashar al-Assad’s long bloodshed in Syria, which claimed the lives of 500,000 people according to the UN.

Today, Tehran delivers drones to Russia, enough to encourage the EU to sanction the Iranian drone maker. In early November, Switzerland also adopted these measures.

At the same time, Iran is becoming increasingly brutal towards its own civilian population. Opponents reported 450 murders in 45 days – 300 were confirmed – and more than 25,000 arrests. Detainees are threatened with torture, sexual violence and arbitrary treatment.

This wave of brutality also prompted the EU to adopt new sanctions, this time against leaders of the moral police. Some political circles in Switzerland are calling for similar measures, but the Swiss government has settled for a tweet, at least officially.

Former Ambassador Philippe Welti comments on the situation as follows: “I would be surprised if Switzerland did not intervene in line with our values ​​in the face of these events”. But it does so in confidential dialogue with the authorities, not publicly.

Switzerland’s relations with Iran have always been twofold: trade on the one hand, special diplomatic tasks on the other. The main objective was of a commercial nature, but only the conjunction of these two approaches allowed Bern to establish an ever closer relationship with Tehran.

The deeper the regime sank into international isolation, the more important Switzerland became, not just to Tehran but also to the West. The latter withdrew, Switzerland stood its ground, built bridges, became the go-between. This particular role legitimized friendship with the rogue state without fear of international condemnation.

The dogma of change through trade

This status also served as justification for the Swiss population. Like China or Russia, Switzerland followed the dogma of “change through trade” in Iran. You first have to establish a relationship to address the issue of human rights. This is how the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) argues whenever critical voices are raised internally.


The Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini (centre) is applauded by supporters in Tehran. Keystone / Str

In 1979, Switzerland received its first protective power mandate: it assumed the representation of Iranian interests in Egypt. In 1980, she took on the same task with the United States. This is the “jewel in the crown” of Switzerland’s protective power mandates, as they say in diplomatic circles. In 2017, Saudi Arabia followed with a dual mandate, and in 2019, Canada. Thus, Switzerland owes Iran five of its seven protective power mandates.


Iranian uprising 2022: A funeral procession heads to the grave of Mahsa Amini, whose violent death sparked the protests. twitter @omid_m

Bern won 200 of those terms during World War II. Those that endure today are even more important. “Switzerland has every interest in not losing these mandates of protective power”, explains Philippe Welti.

The benefits of dialogue

Thanks to its neutrality, it acted as an intermediary, for 150 years, between States that broke their diplomatic relations due to conflicts. “No country has more experience in this area”, says Philippe Welti, who took care of the American mandate when he was in Tehran. These mandates give Switzerland privileged access to actors in world history and weight on the international stage.

Iran also benefits. Friendship with the respected small state normalizes mullahs internationally, so it is emphasized with pleasure.

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Switzerland is also actively helping Iran gain access to international structures. Thus, at the request of Tehran, it defends its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), as this country, rich in raw materials, desperately seeks to link up with the world economy. Its currency collapsed, inflation reached 50%.

This WTO sponsorship was recorded in a “roadmapexternal link for further deepening relations” in 2016. The declaration comprises 13 paragraphs, ranging from politics and economics to agriculture and law, including nuclear safety and the environment.


Johann Schneider-Ammann, former Minister of Economy of Switzerland, is received by then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran in 2016. Keystone / Supreme Leader Website / Brochure

Paragraph 10, on human rights, remains vague: “the parties declare their intention to resume dialogue on relevant human rights issues”, adding that the authorities should first discuss the modalities of such dialogue.

We know that Switzerland regularly mentions women’s rights, freedom of expression and Tehran’s attachment to the death penalty, especially when it affects young people. In fact, Iran executes hundreds of citizens every year, most of them by hanging, including minors.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump was tough on Tehran. He wanted to bring the mullah regime to its knees. Message from him: either you deal with Iran or with the United States.

This position further complicated relations. No Swiss bank dared to record even a single franc in their books that might come from Iran, and most Swiss companies could not afford to be angry with the United States.

In response, Switzerland created a “Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement” referring to its humanitarian tradition. This allows, from 2020, the trade of restricted areas, such as medicines and food, authorized by the United States. Nestlé, Novartis, Roche and Syngenta are among them. But there, too, the disappointment was not long in coming, as in order to obtain authorization from Washington it was necessary to send the details of the contract across the Atlantic, something that puts most potential partners off.

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Thus, Switzerland has yet to get much out of its controversial engagement in Iran. Tehran, however, welcomes the direct but consistent granting of visas to Iranian officials who wish to travel to Geneva. They are numerous and this is undoubtedly the greatest benefit that Iran derives from this special relationship and “certainly a very welcome concession that Switzerland offers Iran”, points out the former diplomat Philippe Welti.

Geneva is very precious to Iran, a gateway to the world, “like a breath of fresh air”.


Valuable access to Geneva and the WEF in Davos: former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami with then-President of the Swiss Confederation Joseph Deiss in Bern in 2004. Keystone / Lukas Lehmann

Translated from German by Lucie Donzé

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