Hours after ordering the strike that took out Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the White House used a Swiss back channel to warn Tehran against escalating tensions, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
The encrypted message was sent to a fax machine located in a sealed room of Switzerland’s embassy in Tehran. Swiss Ambassador Markus Leitner then hand-delivered the message to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the early hours of the morning after the attack.
While Zarif initially responded with frustration, calling US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “bully,” according to the report, the US and Iran appear to have slowly walked back from the brink of war — thanks in no small part to the effective communications pathway provided by Switzerland.
A handful of other messages followed the initial American warning and they were characterized by officials with knowledge of the exchanges as far more measured.
In the days that followed, the White House and Iranian leaders exchanged further messages, which officials in both countries described as more reasoned than the heated rhetoric publicly employed by politicians from the two countries.
The Swiss have been reliably used to back channel messages between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 seizure of the American embassy by Iranian revolutionaries and the ensuing hostage crisis.
Bern ferried cables during the fallout of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that were credited in having prevented direct clashes between the US and Iran. The communication system was also used by the Obama administration to jump-start the negotiations that achieved the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Even when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and employed crippling sanctions against Tehran, Washington used the back channel to let Iran know that Trump was still interested in holding talks.
“When tensions with Iran were high, the Swiss played a useful and reliable role that both sides appreciated,” a senior Trump administration official told the Wall Street Journal. “Their system is like a light that never turns off.”
“We don’t communicate with the Iranians that much, but when we do the Swiss have played a critical role to convey messages and avoid miscalculation,” the official added.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations said, “We appreciate [the Swiss] for any efforts they make to provide an efficient channel to exchange letters when and if necessary.”
Commenting on the back channel, a separate Iranian official said, “In the desert, even a drop of water matters.”