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The UK and US must work together to promote peaceful stability across the Middle East

4 min read

The UK and US may not agree on how to handle relations with Iran, but we need to find a way to work from similar values, says Alistair Burt

The engagement of the US and the UK with the politics, conflicts, trade and states of the Middle East remains a vital element in its past, present and future. The constant and excellent relationship between our diplomats, intelligence and security teams is enduring in a troubled region. Such relationships rightly outlast respective administrations on both sides of the Atlantic, and we are better off for that.

We should not forget that the Trump presidency arrived in the wake of some uncertainty over US engagement during the Obama years. President Trump had expressed profound convictions about foreign policy during his campaign and we have learned that, by and large, he sticks to them.

While there is always focus on where our thoughts and policies may differ, we should not lose sight of where joint policy has worked effectively. We share a horror at the return of chemical weapons. The UK, along with France, supported the US strike against Syria’s Assad after their use against his own people in 2018.

We partnered with the US in the multinational force which has shrunk Daesh territorially, and work closely as the hub of the communications cell to turn back their hateful propaganda. Together we encourage the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council to find a way to resolve their differences.

'There is no doubt that elements of Trump White House policy conflict with UK policy objectives'

But there is no doubt that elements of Trump White House policy conflict with UK policy objectives. I’m not over-worried by this; if our policies are identical, commentators will ask about our independence and the tired ‘poodle’ analogy will be rolled out. If we differ, we are asked about the risk to the special relationship. Neither comment is useful. We share much more than what divides us, but those areas where we do differ allow for serious debate – usually about how we seek a similar objective by tackling complex problems from a different angle.

Two areas in particular highlight this; how to handle relations with Iran is one. The decision of the US to leave the long-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran – the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – was trailed during the election campaign, but appeared checked by initial senior policy advisers. Since then, a change of personnel has heralded a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ designed to confront what is recognised as unacceptable actions by Iran and its proxies.

The UK shares the concerns of many, and does not minimise the risks posed by Iran. However, we have made strenuous efforts with European partners to find a different path. We do not see that any threat is reduced should JCPOA fail and Iran returns to a nuclear programme. Currently neither the US or ourselves have been particularly successful, and new avenues need exploration.

Between Israel and the Palestinians, the president has moved away from a stance of neutral broker. A series of decisions on Jerusalem, refugees, and the UN Relief and Works Agency, taken together with hints at the shape of the forthcoming ‘deal of the century’, have deliberately confounded an international consensus which the US has given up as unsuccessful.

The UK has disagreed with the decisions taken but shares the frustration of this long-lasting and still pivotal issue, which we do not believe can be simply managed but rather must be resolved.

I believe the UK’s relationships with key Arab states, the Palestinian Authority and Israel – working sometimes in tandem with the US on this, and sometimes outside it - should be utilised with urgency when the time comes, both for security for Israel and a just resolution for the Palestinian people.

Overall, there are occasions we wonder if a policy is discernible as a framework into which decisions fit, or if the policy is formed following actions taken. I suspect it’s a mixture of both.

Our vital and valued relationship means the UK and US must do all they can to work from similar values, avoid a Europe/US fracture, and continue in the region to promote peaceful stability for which Middle Eastern people yearn.

Alistair Burt is Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire, and former FCO Minister of State for the Middle East

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