Swiss Back Channel Helped Defuse U.S.-Iran Crisis
By Drew Hinshaw, Joe Parkinson and Benoit Faucon (wsj)
Updated Jan. 11, 2020 5:04 am ET
The U.S. sent an encrypted fax via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran urging Iran not to escalate, followed by a flurry of back and forth messages
BERN, Switzerland—Hours after a U.S. strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Trump administration sent an urgent back channel message to Tehran: Don’t escalate.
The encrypted fax was sent via the Swiss Embassy in Iran, one of the few means of direct, confidential communication between the two sides, U.S. officials said.
In the days that followed, the White House and Iranian leaders exchanged further messages, which officials in both countries described as far more measured than the fiery rhetoric traded publicly by politicians.
A week later, and after a retaliatory Iranian missile attack on two military bases hosting American troops that inflicted no casualties, Washington and Tehran seemed to be stepping back from the brink of open hostilities—for now.
“We don’t communicate with the Iranians that much, but when we do the Swiss have played a critical role to convey messages and avoid miscalculation,” a senior U.S. official said.
A spokesman at Iran’s mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the exchanges but said “we appreciate [the Swiss] for any efforts they make to provide an efficient channel to exchange letters when and if necessary.”
One Iranian official said the back channel provided a welcome bridge, when all others had been burned: “In the desert, even a drop of water matters.”
From the Swiss Embassy, a Shah-era mansion overlooking Tehran, the country’s role as a diplomatic intermediary has stretched through four turbulent decades and seven presidencies, from the hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. It has seldom been tested like this.
The Americans’ first note was sent immediately after Washington confirmed the death of Gen. Soleimani, the most important figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. officials said.
It arrived on a special encrypted fax machine in a sealed room of the Swiss mission—the most enduring method since the 1979 Islamic Revolution—for the White House to exchange messages with Iran’s top leadership.
The equipment operates on a secure Swiss government network linking its Tehran embassy to the Foreign Ministry in Bern and its embassy in Washington, say Swiss diplomats. Only the most senior officials have the key cards needed to use the equipment.
Swiss Ambassador Markus Leitner, a 53-year-old career diplomat, delivered the American message by hand to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif early on Friday morning, according to U.S. and Swiss officials.
Mr. Leitner, reached by email, declined to comment. The Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed there had been an exchange of messages, but declined to comment further.
Mr. Zarif responded to the U.S. missive with anger, according to an official familiar with the exchange. “[U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo is a bully,” he said, according to one U.S. official briefed on Mr. Zarif’s response. “The U.S. is the cause of all the problems.”
The Swiss ambassador regularly visits Washington for closed-door sessions with Pentagon, State Department and intelligence officials eager to tap his knowledge about Iran’s opaque and fluid politics.
Mr. Leitner spent the days after Gen. Soleimani’s killing shuttling back and forth in a low-key but high-wire diplomatic mission designed to let each side speak candidly. It was a contrast to the jabs of President Trump and Mr. Zarif on Twitter.
On Jan. 4, the day after the killing, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had picked out 52 targets, including Iranian heritage sites for potential retaliation if America suffered losses. “Those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” the tweet said.
Mr. Zarif replied the next day: “A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage,” he wrote. “Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries. Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”
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That same day, Mr. Zarif called the Swiss ambassador to take a message to the U.S. It was more restrained, according to the U.S. officials. Statements from both sides helped prevent miscalculations, the officials said.
“When tensions with Iran were high, the Swiss played a useful and reliable role that both sides appreciated,” said a senior Trump administration official. “Their system is like a light that never turns off.”
The Swiss have served as messengers between Washington and Tehran since 1980, in the wake of the seizure of the American Embassy—and 52 hostages —in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries. Swiss diplomats call the role the “brieftrager” or “the postman.”
In the years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Swiss shepherded messages to help avoid direct clashes. When President Obama assumed office, Switzerland hosted the talks that led to a nuclear deal. When Washington lifted sanctions, Swiss businesses had an early jump on rivals.
When Mr. Trump re-imposed sanctions, he gave the Swiss a phone number to pass the Iranians, saying: “I’d like to see them call me.”
So far, Tehran has continued to speak through the Swiss.
Former Swiss ambassadors say the diplomatic channel is effective because the U.S. and Iran can trust a message will remain confidential, be delivered quickly, and will reach only its intended recipients. Statements passed on the back channel are always precisely phrased, diplomatic, and free of emotion, they said.
Landlocked Switzerland, a country of nine million with no standing army, parlays its role as “postman” to lever access to the great powers.
Currently, Swiss diplomats are working to get Washington’s green light for Swiss banks to finance exports to Iran that aren’t subject to sanctions—like food and medicine.
“We do things for the world community, and it’s good,” said a former ambassador. “But it is also good for our interests.”
Iran isn’t the only geopolitical hot spot where the Swiss Embassy represents U.S. or other countries’ interests after the breakdown of diplomatic relations.
The Swiss now holds six mandates including representing Iran in Saudi Arabia, Georgia in Russia and Turkey in Libya. In April 2019, the Trump administration asked Bern to represent it in Venezuela but President Nicolás Maduro’s government has yet to approve.
As tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated, the channel has remained active. In December the two countries released prisoners at the same time at a special hangar in the Zurich airport.
U.S. special envoy on Iran Brian Hook and Iran’s Mr. Zarif sat in separate rooms as the Swiss directed the carefully choreographed exchange.
“The Swiss channel has become enormously important because of what they can do in the short term to lessen tensions,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who worked with the Swiss on the prisoner exchange. “It’s the only viable channel right now.”
—Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.
Write to Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joe Parkinson at email@example.com and Benoit Faucon at firstname.lastname@example.org