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Washington's woman in Iran

Thursday - 10/20/2011, 4:00am  ET

leuagosti.jpg
Leu Agosti was recently received by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- Whether it's Iranian military speed boats harassing U.S. Naval vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz, three hikers who end up in an Iranian prison or an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil, one woman will get a call from Washington with instructions.

She lives in Iran and is not a U.S. citizen. She is the only person Iran will answer to when it comes to U.S. matters.

She is the Swiss ambassador to Iran. Switzerland is the U.S. "protecting power" in Iran.

"We provide a confidential channel between the two governments which are not on speaking terms with each other," said Livia Leu Agosti.

Meeting with reporters at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, Leu Agosti reluctantly and gingerly addressed the bombshell news about a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubier in Washington.

"It's not up to me to comment on this, you've seen the plot yourself," she said. "It's an amazing story, but I hear there is compelling evidence. Even amazing stories can be true and if there is evidence, there is not much more to say about it."

"This is part of what this mandate is for," said Leu Agosti, in Washington for briefings with U.S. foreign policy leaders. "When there is a reason for the Iranian government to communicate something to the U.S., they call me in immediately."

Leu Agosti then transmits the message to Washington and awaits a response. The nature of the messages is confidential, but judging from the tone emanating from the White House these days, the messaging from Iran has not been very pleasant.

"Iranian meddling is something that concerns us," Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said in an exclusive interview with WTOP. "We of course have been very concerned and have spoken out about their efforts inside of Iraq, which included proxy groups which have engaged in attacks on U.S. troops, and their also broader meddling in the region."

Beyond the meddling in the region, Iran's nuclear program also worries Washington, says Rhodes.

"They continue to fail to demonstrate that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and because of that we've imposed the strongest sanctions that we've seen to date on Iran," he said.

The staggering news of a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. has been bitterly rejected by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a lie. He compared the allegations to U.S. claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was the basis for the U.S. invasion in 2003.

But a senior administration official says the plot "is a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government's use of violence."

"We consider this effort to assassinate a diplomat within the United States to be an act of state-sponsored terrorism which violates international law and Iran's own obligations," the official said.

Those obligations involve everything from the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 -- which details appropriate relationships between states -- to the observation of local laws. Iran is accused of violating protocol on numerous levels.

"This particular threat has been disrupted, but clearly the recklessness of this plot suggests that elements of the Iranian government could be involved in other aggressive actions," another U.S. official told WTOP. "It makes complete sense to be vigilant in case there might be other Iranian-sponsored terrorist plots under consideration."

The latest developments, according to Leu Agosti, may further poison relations between the U.S. and Iran.

"After 30 years the level of mistrust is pretty high, and this will not diminish it," she said.

Caught in the middle of one crisis after another Leu Agosti says "this has been a conflictual (sic) situation for many years, and that's exactly what the mandate is for. In moments like this there is still a way to sort of get to each other."

Recently, Leu Agosti played a critical role in the release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal from Iranian custody.

"I don't think there was a week when we didn't make an intervention on their behalf in Iran," she said. "At the beginning it was to get formal confirmation that they really had them. That took several weeks -- and then to make their life in prison a little better by easing their isolation."

She is not just there as the U.S. government's representative -- she also is the principle point of contact for Iranian officials who want to communicate with the U.S. But she has to strike a balance, because Switzerland has its own independent diplomatic interests.

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