Ambassador Sabet’s Interview with Lidove Noviny

The Czech Miltiary will soon take delivery of twelve helicopters and will receive eight more. He is looking forward to trips around Czech Republic

Authors: Martin Shabu, Veselin Vačkov
Photo: Petr Topič, MAFRA

I had the best expectations, but reality exceeded them. U.S .Ambassador Bijan Sabet does not hide his fascination with the Czech Republic in his first major interview for Czech media. During your Senate confirmation hearing, you said that one of your priorities as ambassador to the Czech Republic will be strengthening bilateral relations in the field of defense, especially the sale of F-35 aircraft. How far along is the deal?

During the Senate hearing, I outlined three priorities that I am focusing on. The first of these is really our common security.  We have long-term close relations in the field of defense with friends and Allies in the Czech Republic. I spoke with the Minister of Defense on Tuesday morning. We are very pleased that the Czech government announced its intention to purchase 24 American-made F-35 aircraft.

Our Czech partners’ detailed questions are now being resolved at the expert level. Our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Defense and at Lockheed Martin are working on the answers. We believe that the F-35 will serve as the backbone of the Czech Air Force for decades. It is the best aircraft in its class. It ensures interoperability with NATO and we believe that it will contribute to the modernization of the Czech military? Did you have a chance to talk to President Petr Pavel, who was the Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army. He said in an interview with Lidové noviny that he would like to see an analysis of the benefits and costs of buying the F-35 before offering his final opinion?

I was very grateful to be invited to the inauguration of President Peter Pavel. It was definitely a momentous event that I will never forget. I am looking forward to working with Mr. President Pavel, but I have not met him yet. The moment is approaching when the Czech army will receive a dozen American Venom and Viper helicopters. Have the Czechs signaled to you an interest in buying more of them?

The Czech army received the first delivery of these helicopters in Texas this week. They should first arrive in the Czech Republic in the first half of this year. In addition to those twelve, negotiations are now underway for additional helicopters—a total of eight. This will take place within the framework of the EDA program (Excess Defense Articles, according to which the Czech Republic should only pay part of the costs – editor’s note). What other deals or topics do you consider important in the area of defense cooperation between the United States and the Czech Republic?

Another area I mentioned in my Senate hearing is the Defense Cooperation Agreement. Negotiations on the text have been completed. I look forward to this agreement being signed and ratified. A similar agreement in Slovakia caused a relatively large political upheaval during the ratification process. Do you expect a similarly stormy debate in the Czech parliament and in Czech society?

According to all the reports we receive from our Czech partners, the agreement on defense cooperation has enormous support here in the Czech Republic. The agreement has been publicly discussed for some time. It appears to have strong support in parliament, which must ratify it. This will be an important next step after the agreement is signed by both countries. Have you talked about the DCA with the opposition?

We are talking to various government officials. I have yet to meet the leaders of ANO. But in general, I can say that we hear mostly very positive reactions. Are you as the Embassy planning an information campaign to explain to the public the agreement is all about?

Information to the parliament and the general public will primarily be provided by the Czech government. We are convinced that the defense cooperation agreement will strengthen our bilateral relations, improve interoperability with NATO, and ensure further exercises beyond what has been happening so far. We have described the positive aspects of the agreement, but when it comes to communication with the Czech public, I believe that the Czech government has the main role here. Do you have a date when the defense ministers of both countries might sign the agreement?

The date is still being negotiated. Hopefully, we will have more information to share with you soon, including who will be signing the contract. Are there any negotiations taking place regarding a military base in the Czech Republic that might used by American soldiers in the future?

I want to clearly say that the defense cooperation agreement is a legal framework that allows for exercises and things like that. This agreement does not allow the permanent presence of our soldiers. I want to assure everyone in this regard that it is not part of it. Are high-level visits planned either in Prague or in the United States?

We recently had an important delegation from Congress here. We met with Prime Minister Fiala and National Security Advisor Tomáš Pojar. As you probably know, Minister of Industry and Trade Jozef Síkela and a large group of Czech businessmen met with senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with businessmen on the east coast, in Texas, and in California. In May, our strategic dialogue will take  place. Of course, I should not forget the second Summit for Democracy, which is taking place this week, where President Petr Pavel will have a video address. Of course, we are most interested in whether the Czech prime minister or president is going to visit the White House in the foreseeable future. How far are these possible trips?

After his visit to Kyiv in March, President Joe Biden met with representatives of the B9 countries (Bucharest Nine – editor’s note) in Poland. Prime Minister Fiala was also there and I was very happy that he was able to meet President Biden. Regarding your question: as of today, the White House has not announced any further meetings, but we will always advocate for meetings at the highest level. Your second main priority in the Czech Republic is the development of economic cooperation, especially in the field of energy. The tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant has a key place. Who is the main competitor of the American company Westinghouse? The Koreans or the French?

In the case of energy, we need to emphasize the things we agree on. Energy security cannot be separated from national security. We support Westinghouse’s offer. We believe they have the best technology with proven results. We have assurances from Westinghouse management that the Czech Republic is an extremely high priority for them. They recently opened a Prague branch. The CEO of Westinghouse is visiting the Czech Republic and we’ll meet at the residence in a few days. I also recently spoke at a meeting organized by Westinghouse and Bechtel with local interested firms that will be involved in the supply chain if successful. You diplomatically avoided answering the question about the competition. But we have one more because Westinghouse filed a lawsuit against the Korean company KHNP. They claim that part of the technology that the Koreans offer in Poland and indeed in the Czech Republic is the intellectual property of Westinghouse and cannot be sold to other countries without its consent. Is the U.S. government supporting Westinghouse in this lawsuit?

The U.S. government is on the side of Westinghouse [for this bid] because we believe it offers the best technology. We do not take a position on the legal dispute, as it is between Westinghouse and the Korean company. I know Westinghouse is active in this regard and its leadership has strong arguments. Can the dispute affect the tender for the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic?

I am unable to comment on that. Westinghouse has a strong opinion on the lawsuit. Why exactly does Westinghouse have such a strong intention to win the tender?

Westinghouse has a long-term interest in the Czech Republic. This is nothing new. They want to succeed here. The Czech Republic has a lot of needs around nuclear power and they believe they have the best solution and we agree with them. (After the interview, it was announced that from 2024 the nuclear fuel to Dukovan will be supplied by Westinghouse instead of the Russian company TVEL – editor’s note) Before your arrival to Prague, you met some of your predecessors who served as ambassador in Prague. Can you tell me what advice or warning you received from them?

I have met with the previous four U.S. ambassadors. Two were nominated by Republican presidents, two by Democratic presidents. Although they each lived here at a different time, they all had similar experiences. They look back on their work in the Czech Republic with great fondness. They said that these were the best years of their professional lives. They remembered some small ordinary stories, anecdotes, places, restaurants and so on. All of them also encouraged me to travel outside of Prague, so I decided to take that advice to heart and spent the last few weekends visiting other regions. I’ve only been here for seven weeks, and I had the best expectations, but the reality exceeded them. It can be seen from the photos on your Instagram account that you have already traveled around the Czech Republic. How do you choose places to go?

I got some good tips on social media. And my wife is an avid traveler and provides her own suggestions. My big hobby is photography, so I want to see as much as possible. I am currently looking forward to my first visit to Brno, where I already have an agreed program. I will gradually try to visit all regions. You mentioned your hobby, photography. Landscapes and architecture predominate in the images you post. Why don’t you take pictures of people?

I started taking photos when my children were young, which is not uncommon. It was like having access to a time machine and being able to go back and see my children grow again. When they were older, we started traveling more and I was still taking pictures. Why don’t I take pictures of people now? Probably because I don’t want to offend anyone. In time, I will see how the people in society here react, and hopefully I will gather the courage to ask them to have their picture taken. Maybe you’ll see some photo portraits in the future. What kind of camera do you use?

I’m kind of obsessed with old film cameras. I shoot in black and white on old 35mm and medium format films. Everything is manually operated, no batteries. It satisfies me so much more. It’s more creative and fun. You were a successful investor. What trend should everyone, including the Czech Republic, pay attention to and invest in?

Don’t take what I say as investment advice. But first I want to note that I am really excited about all the technical possibilities in the Czech Republic. I have already spent quite a bit of time with Czech entrepreneurs. On Monday evening, we had the announcement of the results of a startup competition. A total of nine startups with female founders presented themselves. We chose two but it was a difficult decision as they were all very convincing. I also spoke to several local venture capital firms last week. I see a huge amount of energy here. It’s not unlike the energy we see in Silicon Valley, New York, or Austin.

Otherwise, we see a lot of activity around us in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics, in the fight against climate change or in biotechnology. Although it is a narrow slice of the innovation economy, it is clear that it is very busy here. When we talk about artificial intelligence, we plan to have the recording of our interview converted into text form by artificial intelligence and then translate the text into Czech with its help. Of course, we will have to carefully check and edit the result.

You see, it’s literally a new world.