Swiss President Ueli Maurer’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump was a unique bilateral event at a moment of increasing tensions between the United States and Iran. While it’s not clear what exactly was discussed in the forty minute meeting in the Oval Office – progress towards an eventual free trade agreement between Switzerland and the U.S? the role of Switzerland in representing the U.S. in the Venezuelan crisis? – the Swiss press has focused on the role Switzerland could play in avoiding a U.S./Iranian confrontation.
Switzerland has represented American interests in Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979. It is important to remember the outstanding role Swiss Ambassador Erik Lang and his colleagues played in helping the liberation of 52 American diplomats and citizens after 444 days of detention. (See the film "Ambassade") There is a history of Switzerland’s representing U.S interests in Iran.
If the meeting was about Iran, what exactly is today’s crisis? Since the beginning of May, the United States has pinpointed increasing Iranian aggressivity in the Persian Gulf including increased Iranian aid to militant groups and some proxy forces in the region. Photographs claim to show Iranian missiles being loaded on small boats in the Persian Gulf by paramilitary forces. There have even been indications that Iran is preparing to attack U.S. troops and interests. In response, the State Department has ordered a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Militarily, an aircraft carrier, long-range bombers and other military hardware have been sent to the region.
If the exact nature of the Maurer/Trump meeting remains unclear, there is also no clear position on the American side about Iran. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are leading advocates of the increased Iranian aggressivity and are calling for a strong American response, with the possibility of sending 120,000 troops to the region. Bolton was in the Oval Office meeting with Maurer and Trump. (Bolton is a strong supporter of regime change in Iran as well as Venezuela.)
On the other hand, members of Congress, European leaders, Iraqis and some members of the Trump administration are reluctant to label Iran as the aggressor. After all, it was the United States that pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and continues to impose rigid sanctions.
Many members of the U.S. Congress are reluctant to give President Trump a free hand in this potential conflict for two reasons. First, it is the legal right of Congress to declare war and it is their role to oversee sending military forces into combat. Second, the contestation over the photographs of missiles being loaded on boats reminds many of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 when the United States government maintained that the USS Maddox had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese forces leading to increased US involvement in the Vietnam War. The report of the incident was and is controversial with significant indications showing that the “incident” was falsely presented to justify increased U.S. involvement.
Why would Donald Trump create tension with Iran? The movie “Wag the Dog” presents a scenario where a war is fabricated to distract voters’ attention from a presidential sex scandal. And if the United States were to be involved in a violent conflict with Iran, chances are it would help President Trump to be re-elected in 2020. In times of crisis, history has shown, voters tend to elect the incumbent candidate for the sake of stability.
Whatever the reason for the Maurer/Trump meeting, Switzerland’s image as an important neutral country which offers its “good offices” tradition has been enhanced, although Switzerland was barely mentioned in the American press which focused mainly on tensions within the U.S. government. And there are significant differences between Switzerland’s specific role in dealing with the 1979 hostage crisis and this larger, more complex confrontation. One can only speculate about why President Maurer and President Trump didn’t have more to say about the meeting. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome, a visit by a Swiss president to the Oval Office is an important event in and of itself.