Washington’s man in Iran
Swiss diplomat Philippe Welti spent more than four years as his nation’s chief envoy to Iran — and Washington’s. He discusses the benefits and limitations of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
By Borzou Daragahi
February 9, 2009
Reporting from Tehran — For two hours one day in early 2008, a tall, silver-haired man sat in an office in Iran’s ornate Ministry of Foreign Affairs compound. He came to beg, plead and charm.
But the officials just looked bored, recalls Philippe Welti, who for more than four years served as both Switzerland’s envoy and Washington’s representative to the Islamic Republic, as he discussed the case of a young man on death row who had committed a crime while a juvenile. The West and human rights organizations have strongly urged Iran to end execution of juvenile offenders.
When Welti began to leave, dejected, an Iranian official approached him and told him his heartfelt presentation made a big impression. “That’s really something else when you come here,” he said the official whispered to him. “Mostly they come in and give us lists [of people in prison] and leave.”
His two hours were not in vain.
“I may have a minimal effect,” he said. “But as long as it’s above zero, it’s worth trying.”
During a series of interviews last year, Welti, now about to serve as Switzerland’s envoy to India, described his experiences during a tumultuous period that began in the last year of reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and continued through the height of tensions between Washington and Tehran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As the Obama administration considers increasing political contacts with Iran, Welti’s experience illustrates both the benefits and limitations of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.