June 14, 2011 | Middle East Times
Switzerland Siding with Iran?
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter went to Damascus last week to meet with Hamas' Khaled Meshaal, a man accused of terrorism by the United States, Israel and the European Union. Carter's initiative was criticized by the leadership in Washington and Jerusalem as appeasing terrorism.
As damaging as some people, such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, say Carter's freelance diplomacy is to the United States, another visit by a Western dignitary to another Mideast leader, also accused of supporting terror, may have even greater repercussions.
I am talking about last month's meeting between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.
In fact that meeting was a blessing in disguise for Tehran. Everything Calmy-Rey could do to please the mullah's regime was done.
First, let's start with the symbolic; meeting with an individual bent on destroying another country, denying the Holocaust and lately also questioning the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks constitutes a major diplomatic faux-pas. Especially for a country which cherishes its legendary “neutrality.”
Indeed while the United Nations Security Council has passed three resolutions condemning and sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, Swiss diplomacy seems totally unfazed by what the international community is trying to achieve.
Switzerland has now publicly fissured the more or less united front against Iran and Tehran loves it. Ahmadinejad was beaming during his meeting and Calmy-Rey could not stop smiling, obviously charmed by the attention of the Iranian president. Realizing the diplomatic coup, the images of the meeting were broadcast on Iranian networks around the clock.
Interestingly, the Swiss minister was wearing a white veil while nothing required her to do so. This symbolic attire is far from a detail and Iranian feminists were appalled that a Western woman would play so blatantly in the hands of the regime.
Shirine, a student at the University of Tehran told the Swiss daily La Liberté: “By wearing the veil, Micheline Calmy-Rey did not help us, Iranian women are fighting everyday to free our heads from these symbols of domination.” She ironically added: “[We] believed that women were free in Europe.”
Ismahane, a MD in Tehran, seconded this view, adding that she was ashamed that now “Western female officials are coming to play the pious in front of the “devil of Tehran” as (Ahmadinejad) is referred to by Iranian feminists.
But her behavior may be understandable. Calmy-Rey put water in her gas by showing a good face with her veil.
To understand this last sentence it helps to know that the Swiss foreign minister traveled to Tehran to ink a gas contract. Indeed, a $20 billion gas deal was signed on March 17 between the Swiss EGL and the National Iranian Gas Export Company (Nigec).
After the controversy regarding her visit grew louder, Calmy-Rey gave an interview on April 15 to the Swiss daily Le Temps where she tried to justify her trip by stating that the gas contract does not violate any of the U.N. sanctions against Iran (though it might violate the U.S. Iran Sanctions Act). Furthermore, the Swiss minister added that other European countries are doing business with Iran and don't get blamed for it.
Unfortunately (for the Swiss), this explanation does not hold water: in fact, some major European countries have been recently curbing business with Iran (especially France and Germany) and advising executives of large companies of the risks associated with doing business with Tehran. Incidentally, the largest Swiss bank, UBS decided over two years ago to break all business ties to Iran.
Calmy-Rey explained that she wanted to protect Switzerland's strategic interests by diversifying energy providers. She added that the goal of her ministry is to insure the security and the well-being of the Swiss population.
Unfortunately, Calmy-Rey was caught lying when Le Temps revealed the next day that none of the gas from the Iranian contract would end up in Switzerland. This revelation sparked much controversy regarding Calmy-Rey's trip to Tehran.
Interestingly, even within her own Socialist Party some people expressed concerns about her twisted explanation. Roger Nordmann, an energy expert with the Socialist Party said: “Mrs. Calmy-Rey's justification, that this agreement directly profits Switzerland, is not credible. On an energy level, it would be better to sign import contracts with Germany or France. But not to buy gas that won't reach Switzerland.”
Also tellingly, Swiss gas officials have joined the fray of Calmy-Rey critics. Eric Défago, the managing director of Gaznat and vice president of the Swiss Association of the Gas Industry, told Le Temps that “this contract is beyond understanding and totally contrary to usual practice.”
One interesting fact makes this Tehran's visit even more puzzling: for decades Switzerland has been importing oil and gas from Libya, but never ever has a Swiss official visited Libya.
So why did Calmy-Rey really travel to Iran to meet with Ahmadinejad? Couldn't she meet with the energy minister or any other high-ranked officials other than Ahmadinejad?
Christophe Darbellay, president of the Christian Democratic People's Party, thinks that Calmy-Rey had a hidden agenda. Interestingly, Calmy-Rey, who boasts about her high moral standards and her defense of human rights, said she also went to Tehran to address the human rights situation in Iran.
This seems like a very long shot, especially in light of Calmy-Rey's pedigree. Indeed, the current Swiss foreign minister and fixture on the Swiss political scene has earned a reputation of blatant anti-Americanism and anti-Israel. She will rarely miss an opportunity to criticize Israel. This may explain why Switzerland was the only European country to recently vote for an anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which incidentally is Geneva-based.
There is more. Roger Koppel, the owner and chief editor of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal Europe piece, entitled, “Somebody Stop Calmy-Rey”: “It is a miracle that her most disastrous act so far went almost unnoticed. In December 2006, she received an Iranian delegation for talks on the nuclear program. To the horror of her closest colleagues, she came up with the idea of improving relations by holding a seminar on differing perceptions of the Holocaust.”
One must understand the enormity of this: Ms. Calmy-Rey suggested a debate in Switzerland with Iranian Holocaust deniers on whether the murder of 6 million Jews actually happened. Fortunately, nothing came of this idea. It would not only have been outrageous, but also illegal, since genocide denial is a crime in Switzerland.
So, maybe Calmy-Rey wanted to address the Holocaust issue with Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad. Nonetheless what seems the most likely reason of her Iranian trip and her lying about it could be the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, one should not be surprised if Swiss diplomacy is trying to find a solution to help the Iranians one way or another.
With such actions, it would appear that Switzerland has abandoned its long-cherished “neutral” label to the detriment of the West. One should not underestimate the potential nefarious effects of Switzerland's foreign policy, in particular when it comes to the Middle East.
In light of this development Washington might want to reconsider having the Swiss represent U.S. interests in Iran. Now that relations with the French have improved, Washington should consider dropping Berne for Paris.
Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).