Following the killing of Iranian military and intelligence commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in a drone attack carried out by the United States on Friday, the Iranian government registered its protest with the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
“The chargé d’affaires (for Switzerland in Iran) was informed of Iran’s position and in turn delivered the message of the United States,” Reuters quoted Switzerland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry as saying.
Switzerland represents the interests of the US in Iran. This is because the US itself does not have an embassy there. Iran’s interests in the United States, on the other hand, are represented by the Pakistan Embassy in Washington.
In an arrangement such as this, Switzerland is the “Protecting Power” of the United States’ interests in Iran. The instrument of Protecting Powers is provided for under the 1961 and 1963 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations. “If diplomatic relations are broken off between two States, or if a mission is permanently or temporarily recalled… the sending State may entrust the protection of its interests and those of its nationals to a third State acceptable to the receiving State,” the 1961 Vienna Convention states. And the 1963 Convention reiterates: “A sending State may with the prior consent of a receiving State, and at the request of a third State not represented in the receiving State, undertake the temporary protection of the interests of the third State and of its nationals.”
The Swiss Foreign Affairs Ministry spells out its role on its website: “In the absence of diplomatic and consular relations of the United States of America with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Swiss government, acting through its Embassy in Tehran, serves as the Protecting Power of the USA in Iran since 21 May 1980. The Swiss Embassy’s Foreign Interests Section provides consular services to US citizens living in or travelling to Iran.”
The United States government describes the same role on a web page on the “US Virtual Embassy” in Iran. At the time Switzerland took over this role, a hostage crisis was playing out in Tehran with students having taken over the then US Embassy; the crisis lasted 444 days.
Why Switzerland? It has historically represented a number of countries in territories where they have no diplomatic mission. The news and analysis website Swissinfo says Switzerland represented 35 countries during the Second World War and had over 200 specific mandates, and between 1946 and 1964 had 46 mandates.
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