November 30, 2011 — The deputy chief of mission of Switzerland's embassy in Washington, Guillaume Scheurer, told a University of Virginia audience on Monday that the sanctions being levied against Iran are creating an opening in Tehran for businesses from China and India.
Speaking in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, Scheurer said that, although foreign trade has greatly decreased because of the sanctions, "the market in Iran is huge."
"India and China, in particular, are in many ways replacing traditional trading partners," including Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, he said.
This, he noted, is because the sanctions against Iran vary in degree and Western nations typically enforce the more stringent measures.
Scheurer's talk was part of the University's Ambassador Speaker's Forum, which is free and open to the public and sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs and U.Va.'s Center for International Studies.
The United States has maintained economic, trade, scientific and military sanctions against the Islamic republic since 1979, in response to the overthrow of the country's monarchy and the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The United Nations, the European Union and several individual countries have also levied sanctions against Iran more recently because of its alleged nuclear program.
Politically neutral Switzerland has been the go-between for the United States and Iran since 1980 because Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations.
Scheurer said the U.S. sanctions are more restrictive than those imposed by the United Nations. China and India follow the U.N. sanctions, which began in 2006 and focus on nuclear non-proliferation.
"Trade is like water – if it cannot go somewhere, it will go somewhere else," he said.
Scheurer also discussed the balancing act his country plays as the diplomatic go-between for the U.S. and Iran. He said Switzerland's ambassador to Iran, Livia Leu Agosti, was at the center of efforts that secured the September release of two American hikers who had been held in Iran for two years for allegedly crossing into the country illegally.
"When the U.S. hikers were taken in Iran, she was the person who had access to them and participated in the negotiations that gained their freedom," he said.
At the time of the hikers' release, the U.S. praised Switzerland for the role it played. In a statement, Donald Beyer, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, said, "Switzerland has unfailingly represented U.S. interests, intervening over and over on behalf of Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, demanding proper treatment and contributing greatly to closing the chapter on these unwarranted charges."
But Scheurer said Switzerland has also borne the ire of the U.S. "It is not always easy, because we also have to be Switzerland and be seen as neutral. We cannot always try to please Tehran and Washington," he said.
As an example, he pointed to a resolution passed last week by the U.N. General Assembly deploring an alleged plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. It also called on Iran to ensure the protection of diplomats and cooperate in bringing those responsible to justice.
The U.S. alleges agents linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard were involved in the assassination attempt, which Iran flatly denies.
Scheurer said Switzerland abstained from the U.N. vote, a move that greatly angered Washington. "We thought, 'We cannot follow the resolution because we don't know the investigation results,'" he said. "But that is the price we pay to be in the middle."
He said Switzerland is honored be the go-between for Iran and the U.S., and the role brings its own set of perks. "We have the luxury to have the questions and the answers from both sides," he said. But he added, sometimes "you get a little punch from both sides."
The speaker series continues Dec. 6, with Ghana's ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ohene Agyekum. He will talk about Ghana's emerging marke, how the Ghanaian diaspora can contribute, and the country's role in the African Union. The talk begins at 6 p.m., also in the Rotunda's Dome Room.