Embracing Iran: The Swiss cheese sanctions policy

Iran’s pervasive human rights violations and sponsorship of terrorism remain of no interest to Bern.

Swiss flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Swiss flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The non-EU member Switzerland became the first Western country to lift sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Swiss move on Thursday is hardly surprising, largely because the Alpine nation was the weakest European link in the sanctions regime meant to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
Last month, Yves Rossier, state secretary at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, went to Tehran and conducted talks on ending sanctions and on “the next steps in their established dialogues on human rights and justice,” according to a ministry statement.
Put simply, his trip meant that economics trumped human rights.
Rossier issued no public criticism of Iran’s unabated wave of executions. Rossier met with Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s human rights commission in the judiciary and a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Larijani denied the Holocaust in Berlin in 2008 and defends the stoning of the women.
Larijani praised his country’s busy execution record last year: “Our expectation of international organizations and the world is [for them] to be grateful for this great service to humanity.”
Larijani has said the stoning of women is more “lenient” than other punishments because of a higher survival rate, according to a report in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.
There appears to have been no criticism of Rossier’s silence regarding Larijani’s fiercely anti-women and anti-Semitic positions from Swiss civil society or political circles.
After sanctions were first relaxed in late 2013, the Swiss stepped up their business transactions with Iran starting in 2014. Switzerland was the top European exporter to the Islamic Republic during a 10-month span, Tehran’s regime-controlled media reported. Exports to Iran reached $1.9 billion and the spike in Swiss trade largely conformed to the $1.7b. figure reported by the Zurichbased Tages-Anzeiger daily during roughly the same period.
Bern has long faced criticism for its pro-Tehran sympathies.
Rewind to 2010: Officials in the Swiss Economics Department said then-foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was too accommodating when dealing with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The officials criticized her for ignoring American security interests.
Calmy-Rey defended her view based on Switzerland’s “neutrality and impartiality.”
Calmy-Rey, a member of the Social Democratic Party, engineered a massive €18 billion-€ 20b. natural gas deal between the Iranian government and Swiss energy trader EGL AG (Elektrizitätsgesellschaft Laufenburg) in 2008.
Shlomit Sufa, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Bern, told The Jerusalem Post at the time that “this deal supports Iran’s economy at a time when all efforts should be made, together, in preventing Iran from advancing its nuclear program and achieving nuclear capacity.
This deal stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the increasingly stringent sanctions imposed on Iran by the Security Council and by others like the USA and the EU.”
In 2008, Calmy-Rey traveled to Tehran and embraced Ahmadinejad during the visit. Two years prior to her euphoria over meeting Ahmadinejad, she proposed seminars be held on “different perspectives” on the Holocaust when meeting with an Iranian delegation on the nuclear crisis.
Anger over Switzerland’s noncompliance with the international effort to isolate Iran prompted Donald S. Beyer, then US ambassador to Bern, to state: “We expressed our disappointment.
We would like them to do it [follow the EU on Iran sanctions].”
The Swiss eventually adopted a weaker version of EU sanctions.
In 2013, the US Treasury Department sanctioned the Swiss-based Naftiran Intertrade (NICO) energy trading company for violating the US Iran Sanctions Act.
Switzerland has retained a sly policy of standing apart from Iran sanctions and anti-terrorism efforts. Hamas – an organization that the EU recognizes as a terrorist entity – has sent its members to Switzerland for meetings.
In sharp contrast to the US, the EU and Canada, the Swiss refuse to proscribe Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups. Both Iranian terrorist proxies are expected to get financial shots in the arm due to the end of Iran sanctions and the resumption of robust EU-Iran trade.
Switzerland’s mad dash to abolish sanctions this month reflects the excessively high priority the Swiss place on doing business in Iran’s energy sector. Iran’s pervasive human rights violations and sponsorship of terrorism remain of no interest to Bern.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.