Washington’s man in 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.

Bleak expectations

Welti, a career diplomat and former defense official, arrived in Tehran from the Swiss capital, Bern, on July 15, 2004, not sure what to expect. It was a big job, serving not only as the envoy of his own small but rich and respected country, but also as protector of U.S. interests in Iran, a role Switzerland has played since shortly after Washington and Tehran ended diplomatic ties after militant students stormed the American Embassy in 1979 and held the staff there hostage for 444 days.

Black-and-white footage of angry demonstrators and clerics clouded Welti’s imagination. He foresaw life as a diplomat in Tehran as an endless cycle of working and sleeping, occasionally heading abroad for decent food and entertainment. “I had a bad picture,” he recalled. “Gray on gray.”

His very first morning was a shock. The weather was fantastic. The sunshine gleamed. And he was received just as warmly by Iranian officials, and was stunned by their respectfulness and delicate manners.


In the following months, he visited ancient sites in Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd, glimpsing the depths of a Persian civilization that Iranians so proudly celebrate. In southern Iran he saw wild camels roaming the desert as well as a highly sophisticated bioresearch center led by a female scientist.

“Everything was colorful -- the society, the women’s outfits, the beauty of the young women and men,” he recalled. “There was a decency among the people.”

Then there were the parties, rollicking all-night affairs filled with music, dance and booze. “It was incredible,” he said. “We’re in Tehran here!”

Evolving perception

But his initial euphoria gave way to a more negative view of the nation as he gained a more thorough understanding of Iran’s political and social system. In getting to know ranking officials, he came to believe that the Islamic Republic was “not at the level of its aspirations or claims.”

He saw mendacious officials manipulate public opinion and was disappointed by the cynicism of some top officials, who rationalized away concerns about human rights and freedom of expression by labeling them “Western” concepts.

He was struck by the provincialism of the officials, many of them recent arrivals to the capital from rural backwaters, he said. “I got the impression that there are officials who do not know the world well.”

He found himself frustrated with both the stubbornness of Iran’s conservative camp and the weakness of its reformists. After a couple of years in Tehran and watching the transition from Khatami to Ahmadinejad, he concluded that it would be tough to change Iran’s foreign policies.

“As long as there is a gap between fundamentalist positions and international standards of intergovernmental exchange and relations, it will be difficult for Iran to engage fully with the world,” he said.

Welti, 59, is handsome with a ruddy complexion and athletic build. With his thick hair pulled back and an elegant wardrobe of finely cut suits, he could pass for a jet-setting European playboy, the kind of guy who spends a lot of time on slopes of the Alps or beaches of southern France.

But he’s actually an intense workaholic, intellectual and family man, regaling visitors with stories about his wife, a well-known Swiss politician, and daughter, an up-and-coming European pop star who goes by the stage name Sophie Hunger.

He refused to debate religion with the Iranians, seeing it as a rhetorical trap. He says it probably helped him avoid the typical Iranian argument when confronted with the Islamic Republic’s transgressions: that Islam is different. “The overriding objective was to have the last word,” he said.

At embassy events, he spoke to the assembled officials and guests about globalization and human rights, urging Iranian leaders to soften their policies. Welti concentrated his energies on prodding Iranians to improve their track record on the rights of dissidents, women and ethnic and religious minorities. Many diplomats in Tehran say they believe a more democratic Iran is the best way to temper its foreign policies, including its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad era

Under Khatami, Welti had access to top officials such as Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, head of Iran’s judiciary. But once Ahmadinejad was elected, the contacts became more difficult. He was often left to struggle through the maze of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sometimes obstructed rather than facilitated contacts with officials in other institutions.

Still he soldiered on, seeking to use the nuanced power of ideas as a weapon. “When it comes to contact with officials, with any country, I always rely on my convictions and my energy,” he said.

Several times he was discreetly informed that his lobbying on behalf of political prisoners or youth offenders had an effect, encouraging him to push harder to promote his country’s agenda in Iran: getting it to respect the human rights of its citizens and play a more humanitarian international role. “We had to keep the dialogue going,” he said.

Welti anticipates little progress in unraveling the disagreement between Iran and the West on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The West, he said, might have to give up demands for Iran to stop its enrichment of uranium ore -- which can be used to produce electricity or potentially to make bomb material -- and instead focus on a broader goal of curtailing military aspects of the program.

Tehran’s problem, he said, is that it has no faith in the West’s promises.

“Iranians are very mistrusting,” he said. “Experiences of the past have given them good reasons to be mistrusting, and that might explain why they often use tactics of [non-]transparency.”

On behalf of U.S.

For nearly three decades, the Swiss have operated a diplomatic outpost for Americans, housed in a small villa on a leafy side street in an upscale district of north Tehran. Welti spent a third to half of his time dealing with U.S. issues and concerns.

The facility’s staff of Iranian and Swiss employees handles consular matters for the 7,000 or so U.S. citizens registered with the mission -- reissuing passports and recording births and weddings. Almost all the Americans here are dual nationals, with the exception of about 150 women married to Iranian men, students studying in Qom and a few professional basketball players.

Welti had direct access to U.S. State Department officials, who eagerly pored over his embassy’s analyses and press reviews.

During trips to Washington, he was greeted like a celebrity. He told officials that the Iranian system’s contradictions, its irresponsible use of oil money and its lack of accountability would eventually lead to its collapse. In a November 2006 sit-down in the White House, Elliot Abrams, an aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, asked whether war would hasten that collapse.

“If you use military force, you strengthen the regime and make it last longer,” Welti told him.

Abrams asked him when he thought the system would collapse on its own.

“I’m sure it’s beyond your political time frame,” Welti told him.

Welti has a simple solution for Washington’s seeming perplexity about Iran: Why, he asked, don’t the Americans follow through on an idea that news reports said was floated by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last year of placing American diplomats in Tehran?

“They don’t lose anything, and they get a firsthand insight into the regime,” he said.

He urges the Americans to try to understand Iran’s history, especially the lingering effects of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and how that continues to color its security concerns, rhetoric and even its nuclear program.

“They were attacked in 1980,” he said, recounting one of his standard spiels to the Americans. “They were traumatized and still feel traumatized. They are still living that war. They have been exposed to a million threats for years now. They’re simply getting ready.

“It is very difficult for everybody to know what the ultimate purpose of the nuclear program is. Some observers think they are just buying time. I am not in a position to judge.”