I sat down with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.K., Minister Elizabeth Dibble, to discuss the Obama visit, the Middle East and the complex Iran-Saudi relationship.
The Obama Visit to the U.K.
D.M.: You touched on President Obama’s visit in your talk and what he said about the EU referendum. What for you were the other big takeaways from his trip to the UK?
E.D.: I think the big takeaway was that the special relationship between the US and the UK is not just alive and well but it is a very dynamic relationship. For me one of the highlights was the town hall meeting that the President did with the next generation of British leaders. The core of the people there were the members of our Young Leaders UK Group which we started just under a year ago, and has been phenomenally successful. In fact, by Monday after the town hall we had received 55 new applications.
One of the things Ambassador Barzun has emphasised is that he’s not the ambassador to London, he’s the ambassador to all of the U.K. and we all try to get out around the country as much as possible and to interact with the next generation of British leaders and hear what’s on their mind. As the wonderful woman who introduced the President during the town hall said, maybe the next Barack Obama or David Cameron is sitting in this audience. This is a generation that doesn’t necessarily remember first hand the original special relationship that Winston Churchill invoked – which is the phrase he coined 70 years ago. During the town hall the president took ten questions ranging from Northern Ireland to community activism to leadership to LGBT relations, and he didn’t get a single Brexit question. And the questions were totally random; we had no idea who he was going to call on and we certainly had no idea what they were going to ask.
The Middle East
D.M.: Touching on your time in the Middle East and thinking back to your time as Deputy Assistant Secretary, you were responsible for U.S. relations with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. That sounds like a textbook definition of the word ‘challenging’. What was that like on a daily basis?
E.D.: Well I sometimes joke that I’m obviously not very good at this because all those places still have problems. It was incredibly challenging. I was there when Rafic Hariri was assassinated in Lebanon. I was not in Lebanon at the time but I was in the job at the time.
The Israel Palestinian conflict has engrossed a big chunk of my career starting in the late 1990s where we were very hopeful there would be a breakthrough, and we still remain hopeful. Realistic but hopeful. But without the involvement of the United States it’s hard to see how the parties will come together. Even with involvement of the United States it’s very difficult but if we were to step back from that I don’t think there would be a hope of a solution.
D.M.: Looking to when the next president takes over in January of next year, what for you will be the most pressing issues in the Middle East that they have to take care of?
E.D.: I think the Syria Iraq situation will definitely be one. As I said earlier, they’re very interrelated issues. In the Middle East, I’d say Libya is probably another. But we also have to ensure that Tunisia, which has been a relative success story, continues down the path that it has chosen. Yemen is a challenge, despite the absence of media coverage but it’s incredibly important. Then, of course, ensuring that the Iran deal stays on track.
Saudi Arabia and Iran
D.M.: That’s a very good segue into my next question on the Iran-Saudi relationship. In your talk you mentioned the Atlantic interview with President Obama in which he said that Iran and the Saudis should “share the neighbourhood” which apparently didn’t go down too well in Riyadh. Looking forward over the next few years what do you see as some of the possible tensions that may emerge between Iran and Saudi Arabia? One possible area that’s been mentioned is that Iran’s oil production capacity may come back online in a more significant way, making it more of a competitor for the Saudis. And the impact of the younger deputy crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (also defence minister). How do you see these kind of dynamics between the Saudis and Iran playing out in the next few years?
E.D.: Well, I think you will see a continuation of the dynamics we’re seeing now. Whether they like it or not, they live in the same neighbourhood so they don’t have much choice but to share it. I think on the part of the Saudis and others in the Gulf there is a nervousness that a stronger and resurgent Iran will try and extend its influence further, so I think from the Gulf perspective they’re going to be very wary of that. Iran is something of a cypher to us. I also think it’s a mistake to think of Iran as a monolith because within Iran you see many competing forces at play. And what you’ve seen over the last few years is a struggle within Iran for control and whose voice is going to dominate which made the nuclear discussions difficult because who speaks for Iran?
So I think you will see a continuation of this process. Muhammad Bin Salman is definitely the next generation in Saudi Arabia; in the slightly more than a year that he has been on the scene, he has certainly exerted his influence in a number of ways. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
D.M.: And do you think the US role in that kind of process is going to be steady as she goes, and a continuation of how it has been?
E.D.: I think there’s a misconception that the nuclear deal meant that we are on the road to normalisation of relations with Iran, which is not the case. The nuclear deal dealt with one slice – an important slice – of the relationship, but we still have a lot of concerns about Iran’s behaviour. We are implementing our end of the agreement – the JCPOA – but we still have a lot of domestic sanctions in place on Iran – for human rights, terrorism, and all the other issues that are part of the landscape. So I think there was some concern among the Gulf States that all of a sudden we were normalising with Iran and they were going to be forgotten. That’s not the case. We have very strong relationships with Saudi Arabia, with the Emirates, with all the countries of the Gulf, and I don’t think that will change.
D.M.: So, no ‘pivot’ to Iran then? (laughs)
E.D.: No, definitely not. (laughs)
D.M.: Thanks for your time.
Image courtesy of U.S. Government Work