Switzerland could open humanitarian channel to Iran 'within months'

Switzerland could open humanitarian channel to Iran 'within months'
Switzerland facilitated a rare prison swap between Washington and Tehran last week.
3 min read
12 December, 2019
US sanctions have deterred foreign companies from introducing food and medical supplies [AFP]
A humanitarian channel to bring food and medicine into Iran could be open within months, Swiss and US officials told Reuters.

While food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions imposed on Tehran last year by US President Donald Trump, the measures have deterred most foreign banks from doing business with the Islamic Republic.

The announcement of the humanitarian channel came just days after a rare Swiss-brokered prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington.

"Our role is really to be able to provide food and health goods to the Iranian people. And therefore we are working hard on establishing that humanitarian channel," said Pascale Baeriswyl, Swiss state secretary for foreign affairs.

"Ultimately that depends on companies and banks wanting to participate....We have made progress recently," he explained.

Asked if the channel could be expected to be up and running within the first half of 2020, Baeriswyl said: "I hope so, but it is very difficult to predict since it is not entirely in our hands."

The humanitarian project was facilitated after the US announced how to verify and certify such deals without going through Iran's central bank or transferring funds to the country.

"If this model works it would be great if others could follow," Baeriswyl said.

France has already led efforts to set up a European trade mechanism to send food and humanitarian supplies to Iran, so far not successful. 

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of Switzerland assuming its mandate as a neutral "protecting power" that has represented US diplomatic interests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Tehran on Saturday announced the release of Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani from the United States shortly before Washington declared American researcher Xiyue Wang was returning home.

"Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation," tweeted Trump after the rare prisoner exchange. "I think it was great to show than we can do something. It might have been a precursor as to what can be done."

Analysts say the swap has opened the door for further exchanegs and negotiations.

"We stand ready - if both parties ask us to - to facilitate more [exchanges], of course," Baeriswyl said on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday however, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a fresh round of sanctions on Iran's largest shipping company and an airline, for their alleged role in weapons smuggling.

The sanctions target the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and its China-based subsidiary, E-Sail Shipping, as well as three agents for Mahan Air.

At the State Department conference, Pompeo told reporters that the companies ran programs that "siphoned" funds away from the Iranian people and served to "augment the regime’s campaign of terror and intimidation at home and throughout the world".

"As long as its malign behaviour continues, so will our campaign of maximum pressure," Pompeo said.

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