The Swiss Foreign Ministry announced on Oct. 25 that it had reached an agreement with Riyadh and Tehran to represent Iranian consular interests in Saudi Arabia and Saudi consular interests in Iran. The landmark agreement, which was personally negotiated by Swiss Foreign Minister and Federal Councilor Didier Burkhalter, was first initiated in January 2016, only weeks after Saudi Arabia and Iran severed diplomatic relations and thereby threatened to destabilize the fragile region even further.
In the long-standing feud between Riyadh and Tehran over competing regional policies, this crisis erupted when Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite cleric Shaikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on Jan. 2, 2016.
While Nimr had been a vocal supporter of the mass anti-government protests that erupted in the Eastern Province in 2011, where a Shia majority have long complained of marginalization, the Kingdom considered his rhetoric as incitement to violence and convicted him on terrorism charges in 2014.
The execution could also be interpreted as a message to Iran by the then-newly appointed Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who sought to transform the Kingdom from a status-quo power into one that seeks to drive regional events as opposed to only responding.
The very same day of Nimr’s execution, however, thousands of what were likely Iranian government-sponsored protestors gathered outside of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran where they chanted “death to Al-Saud,” among other slogans.
The violent demonstrators also set the embassy ablaze by throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks before entering the premises. Similar riots took place outside of the Saudi Consulate in Mashad, Iran’s second most populous city, which prompted Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran all together.
Among Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar all withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran in solidarity.
In light of an already fractious Middle East, Switzerland considered the rupture of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran as not only extremely destabilizing, but feared that the absence of institutionalized lines of communications could have devastating implications for the international community.
Only weeks after the high-profile – and controversial – execution, Burkhalter personally approached his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, during the World Economic Forum in Davos where he offered to provide Switzerland’s good services to establish a mechanism that could help reduce what appeared to be the downward spiral of Saudi-Iranian relations.
Burkhalter also offered to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran.
Switzerland And Iran
Switzerland has represented the U.S. in Iran since 1980, after the two countries severed diplomatic relations over the Islamic Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. From that point on and over the ensuing decades, Swiss diplomats based in Tehran have facilitated diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran.
While Switzerland takes pride in its neutrality, when it comes to the Swiss-U.S. relationship, Washington considers Bern a “partner” and not an “ally,” which also explains why it has been able to maintain a close relationship with Tehran over the decades that have passed since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Within this context, the U.S.-Swiss-Iranian nexus serves as a key pillar in the U.S.-Swiss bilateral relationship.
These dynamics have again translated into Switzerland’s ability to maintain access to the highest level of decision makers in Tehran, which is arguably why Burkhalter sought to leverage it in order to prevent Saudi-Iranian tensions from escalating further.
From a Saudi perspective, Switzerland’s ability and track record of accessing the Iranian leadership could also be an asset at a time of heightened regional tensions and unprecedented turmoil.
A month after Burkhalter presented Zarif with Bern’s proposal at Davos, the Swiss foreign minister traveled to Riyadh where he met Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubair.
In parallel with Burkhalter’s visit to Riyadh, the Swiss Foreign Ministry established in February 2016 an internal task force designated to develop modalities for a prospective agreement between Tehran and Riyadh.
Subsequent discussions were then held in Tehran and Riyadh, respectively. The diplomatic process, however, dragged out because of apparent Saudi security concern over Iranian officials posing as consular officials and using the mandate for espionage purposes.
The Saudis were so concerned that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard could use the mandate to establish a presence in the Kingdom, which explains why Switzerland believed until the very end that the parties would not be able to reach an agreement.
Another sticking point to the agreement was that Saudi Arabia did not want to provide the Iranian consular officials in Jeddah higher diplomatic protection than those enjoyed by consular officials from other countries.
Nonetheless, shortly after Burkhalter announced that he would retire from politics, after 30-years of public service, the agreement was reached.
Under the Swiss negotiated agreement, an Iranian intersection will be established at the Swiss Consulate in Jeddah, which will be staffed by Swiss consular officials and three Iranian nationals. Jeddah was chosen because of its centrality pertaining to the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, formally known as the hajj.
Over the past couple of years, the hajj itself has also become politicized.
This was evident in 2015 when Iran openly challenged Saudi control of Muslim holy sites after a stampede in Mecca killed more than 2,400 people, including at least 464 Iranians, The New York Times reported at the time.
Within this context, the agreement is significant as it could potentially help prevent future bilateral tensions over issues pertaining to the hajj and can be used as a mechanism for additional discussions of mutual concern.
Under the agreement, Saudi Arabia has the right to staff its consulate in the Iranian city of Mashhad, which is significant and symbolic for the Kingdom given the city’s large Sunni minority.
While the three Iranian consular officials set to serve at the Swiss Consulate in Jeddah have yet to arrive, it remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia will – at least for now – send its three counterparts to Mashad as stipulated under the agreement.
When and if Riyadh decides to dispatch consular staff to the Swiss Consulate in Mashad, observers in Washington, across the Middle East and beyond will inevitably scrutinize the matter to determine whether it could be considered a step towards normalizing the tumultuous Saudi-Iranian relationship.
Commenting on the agreement and its significance, Jamal Khashoggi, a preeminent Saudi intellectual and journalist, said, “Saudi Arabia and Iran need this channel, so does the entire region, maybe they could avoid a military confrontation with the help of the Swiss? Both are too involved in the region, and they need to exchange messages even though they are on the opposites.”
Both countries accepted the Swiss Mandate in principle in early 2016, but the negotiations lasted from February 2016 to October 2017 due to what appeared to be Saudi reservations.
Given that the Saudi leadership appeared initially reluctant to accept the agreement, the natural question that begs an answer is: why now?
The timing of the agreement is most likely linked to the lingering uncertainty over the U.S.-administration’s policy towards the region, including where the 80-year old U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance may be heading under the respective leadership of President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Between Riyadh’s dispute with Qatar, which in itself has turned into an intractable conflict, and its long and costly proxy war against Iran in Yemen – where it is enmeshed in what appears to be a stalemate in its war against the Houthi militants – the need for a direct diplomatic channel with Tehran is essential.
Given Switzerland’s demonstrated ability to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran, the Swiss-Saudi-Iranian channel could also be used for dialogue on other issues.
“The Iranians keep asking Saudi Arabia to reconsider its policies toward Tehran,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iranian-American scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They argue that easing of tensions is possible.”
But Vatanka concludes that the decision to make the Swiss a diplomatic mediator points to a prolonged freeze in Iranian-Saudi relations. “At the very least, it is clear that Saudi Arabia does not want to resume diplomatic ties with Tehran while it still feels Iran has the regional upper hand.”