Switzerland Takes on Protecting Power Mandate for Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Swiss government has confirmed that it will officially take up a protecting power mandate in the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict, representing the rivals’ consular interests in each other’s capital, Reuters reports.

Though it has been on the cards for over a year, the cabinet gave the go-ahead for the mandate in a statement on Wednesday and confirmed that relevant agreements had also been signed in Tehran and Riyadh. The mandate will cover the representation of Iranian interests in Riyadh, and Saudi interests in Tehran.

Switzerland has been in negotiations with the two powers since February 2016, a month after the controversial execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia and a subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran led to a freeze in relations.

Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran at the beginning of January 2016 after tensions following the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. Iran protested against the execution and demonstrators stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Iran’s capital Tehran.

Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter launched negotiations on the terms of the mandate with the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers on February 2016. Following the acceptance by both countries of Switzerland’s protecting power mandate and the Federal Council’s approval given at the October 25 meeting, the relevant agreements have been signed in Riyadh and Tehran.

So-called protecting power mandates involve taking on some consular and diplomatic tasks in the event of a breakdown in relations between two states, allowing for the continuation of low-level engagement. It is one half of the two types of ‘good offices’ proposed by neutral Switzerland on the international scene; the other includes mediation and facilitation efforts.

In the case of the Iran-Saudi standoff, which represents the major ideological and religious fault line in the Middle East region, there was no indication on Wednesday that Switzerland is also poised to get involved at a more substantial level.

However, it has previously offered its services for as a mediator, and both Middle East states were said to be considering.

The Swiss cabinet reiterated that it has placed explicit emphasis on protecting power mandates in its 2016-19 foreign policy strategy. In the past, the country has fulfilled over 200 such missions, notably during the Second World War.

The Iran-Saudi mandate brings its current total to five: the others include fulfilling consular duties between Iran and Egypt, the U.S. and Iran, Russia and Georgia, and the U.S. and Cuba.

Switzerland first acted as a protecting power in the 19th century when it looked after the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Grand Duchy of Baden in France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. It also carried out protecting power mandates during the First World War. During the Second World War Switzerland became a protecting power par excellence on account of its neutrality, representing the interests of 35 states – including the major warring powers – with over 200 individual mandates.

The number of mandates between 1948 and 1973 has fluctuated between four and twenty-four.