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Washington's man in Tehran

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.

February 09, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

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.

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