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Why did the Swiss president go to Washington?

Swiss President Ueli Maurer and US President Donald Trump met at the White House on Thursday. These are some of the top foreign policy and trade issues affecting the US-Swiss relationship.

1. Iran

Since it cut ties with Tehran in 1980, the United States has used Switzerland’s good offices to represent its interests in Iran. In recent weeks, tensions have escalated as President Trump tried to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table by threatening to impose more economic sanctions (on the oil and financial sectors), making tougher demands (on their nuclear programme and Iran’s role in Syria, Yemen and Israel), even making overt threats (US aircraft-carrier and bomber deployments to the Gulf).

Yet just last week, Trump indicated a willingness to be “open to discussions”. CNN reported that the White House contacted the Swiss shortly afterwards. According to the US news outlet, the US gave the Swiss a telephone number on which the Iranians could reach Trump. But Iran has yet to call.

On Twitter, Trump wrote he was “sure Iran will want to talk soon.” Around the same time, Maurer was telling his colleagues in the Federal Council that he would be flying to Washington.

It is possible that Trump wants the Swiss to reach out more actively to the Iranians. Up until now Switzerland has taken on the role of a letterbox, or a go-between, at best. In that capacity, Switzerland is not expected to directly transmit a phone number. It is up to Iran to go and retrieve it.

2. Venezuela

Here, the United States and Switzerland are in a similar situation. Since April, Switzerland has been the United States’ protective power in Venezuela as the country spirals into crisis. But so far, Nicolas Maduro’s regime has not even officially acknowledged Switzerland’s new role as an intermediary. As a result, the US is unable to engage in a diplomatic dialogue with Venezuela. Here too, Switzerland’s hands are tied and there is no short-term solution in sight.

3. China

Thanks to its close trade relations with the economic superpower, Switzerland has become an important hub in Europe for this rapidly expanding country. Good relations offer China a Swiss stamp of approval for its new economy as well as a gateway to Europe. This is unlikely to sit well with Donald Trump, who in recent days has further intensified his trade war with China.

4. Free trade

Economically, the main interest of such a meeting – at least from a Swiss point of view – is the imminent signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries. First attempts at inking a deal were made in 2006 but ultimately scuttled to protect the interests of Swiss farmers.

Switzerland brought free trade back to the negotiating table in 2018. There were exploratory talks at the diplomatic level and declarations of good will at the ministerial level. On the Swiss side, the dossier is headed by Secretary of State Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch, who is part of the small team led by Maurer. Even if domestic agriculture remains a major obstacle, President Trump’s green light to draw up a free trade agreement would represent a real breakthrough for Swiss diplomacy.

Switzerland’s chances are good. There is one weakness though: it depends a lot on Donald Trump’s understanding of a small neutral country that likes to do things at its own pace.