The New Arab interviews US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield: We have been extraordinarily successful in isolating Russia

Interview: US envoy to UN on isolating Russia, Mideast peace
9 min read
22 April, 2022
US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke to The New Arab about the US position on Ukraine, the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s occupation and violence in East Jerusalem, Yemen's ceasefire and Libya.

In an interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper (The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication), the US Ambassador to the United Nations and member of President Joe Biden's cabinet, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, discusses a number of issues the US will be considering as it chairs the UN Security Council in May.

Ibtisam Azem, Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN in New York, interviewed Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ibtisam Azem: Have you used all the tools at your disposal to isolate Russia at the UN? Do you fear that pushing President Putin too much would lead to the opposite intended effects?

Linda Thomas-Greenfield: We're constantly assessing new and different tools to use to address the Russian aggression in Ukraine. I think we have been extraordinarily successful in isolating Russia, where they have tried to use their veto power. They've not been able to shut down our voices, have not been able to shut down the condemnation. We were able to get 140 plus countries to vote to condemn them (at the UN General Assembly no country has veto powers).

We got 140 countries to support Ukraine's need for humanitarian assistance, and we were successfully able to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. So, we will continue to again assess what other tools we have in our toolkit. We're keeping the pressure on, particularly unified in terms of putting sanctions on the Russians. And that's been across the board. I think they have been taken by surprise by the extent to which we have been able to unify Europe and the rest of the world. So again, more to come.

"We're keeping the pressure on, particularly unified in terms of putting sanctions on the Russians. And that's been across the board. I think they have been taken by surprise by the extent to which we have been able to unify Europe and the rest of the world"

I.A.: To follow up on that, do you think there is a potential threat of Russians using nuclear weapons and what would you do in this case?

L.T.G.: We hope that the Russians do not resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov indicated today (Monday) that they will only use conventional weapons, but we have to judge them by their actions and not their words.  They will be roundly condemned. They have signed on to agreements against the use of nuclear weapons and I think if they make the decision to do that, they will unify the entire world against them. Those few countries that have been supporting them, except for a handful, will certainly reassess support for Russia, if they were to use nuclear weapons in this war against the Ukrainian people.

I.A.: On the Iran nuclear deal, it’s seems to be that it has reached an impasse. Is it a matter of time before it is declared dead? And is there any chance it will be discussed at the UN Security Council soon?

L.T.G.: As you know, we don't have an agreement and we might not get there. But the President (Joe Biden) has made a commitment, that we will work to ensure that Iran is never allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It has not been brought up in in the (UN) Security Council. But if it should be brought up in the Security Council, we're prepared to vote and to discuss the issues of mutual interest to the world.

And this has been one of those areas where we have been able to work closely with all of the members of the Security Council. I think they all want the US to go back to the JCPOA, they want full implementation. I think what Iran would hear, if this were to be brought before the council is that the world wants action in this area, and it is Iran that has blocked this efforts. We agreed that we would go back into mutual compliance, if they go back into mutual compliance. And that's the crux of where we are right now. We're prepared and they're not.

I.A.: On Libya, you support Stephanie Williams (Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General (UNSG) on Libya), but despite her efforts, it doesn't look like she is able to move things forward anymore. Also, you don't have a UNSG Envoy to Libya. Do you believe that the Security Council, or that you, have failed in Libya?

L.T.G.: Failure is not a word that I will use. I would say that we are continuing to work on the issues. I think Stephanie Williams did an extraordinary job of getting us to the place we are now, and I do think it's important that we get a Secretary General's Special Envoy in place who is willing to go into Libya and roll his or her sleeves up and get the job done.

So, we are definitely working to support and encourage the Secretary General in that direction. And again his decision to appoint Stephanie Williams as a special envoy (adviser) was, I think, a really important step that move the process forward. It facilitated the efforts that have gotten us this far. And we've supported that process across the board. But we have to continue to work on that process and we're not giving up on it just yet, and I don't think we will ever give up.

I.A.: On Israel and Palestine, when it comes to Israeli occupation, your critics would say your inactions reveal a double standard, for example you give about $4 billion of annual military aid to Israel. So, my question is, what steps are you taking to pressure the Israelis to end the occupation? And do you have any comments on the latest events in occupied East Jerusalem?

L.T.G.:  Just on the last one. We're very concerned about the violence in Jerusalem, particularly over the weekend, and we have called on all sides to exercise restraint to avoid any actions that would probably be provocative, to avoid rhetoric that would be provocative and preserve the historic status of the Haram al Sharif and Temple Mount. It's really an important representation for peace.

In terms of our support for Israel, we are unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security, and we will work to strengthen all aspects of our relationship with Israel. It’s a policy of the United States. We fully support Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups.

But the President has been clear, that while we're committed to Israel's security, that a democratic Israel and a secure country for the Palestinians a two-state solution, is what we want to see happen. And if that happens, I think we will see security and peace for the Palestinians and we will see security and peace for the Israeli people. Both sides deserve that.

"We are unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security, and we will work to strengthen all aspects of our relationship with Israel. It’s a policy of the United States"


I.A.: Let me push back a little bit here, you would agree that the power relation between Palestinians and Israelis is not equal. There's an occupied and occupier. So the question is, why would Israel care about statements if there’s zero consequences for its occupation, for settlements building etc.?

L.T.G.: We have been working with both sides on all of these issues. I was in the region in November. I had meetings with senior Israeli officials from the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister, and then I went into the West Bank and I met with the Palestinian Authority as well, to talk about how we could move this process forward. And we will continue to work tirelessly to bring the two sides closer together.

They're far apart right now. It's clear and the ground is not yet ripe for launching a peace process or even restarting the negotiations. But that doesn't mean that we're not working to get us to that point. We're working, one to prevent any actions on both sides that raise the tensions. And I raised this with my Israeli counterparts, and our goal is a negotiated two-state solution. And we're encouraging both sides not to take any actions that would make it difficult to reach that goal.

I.A.: On Yemen and ceasefire there. Are you optimistic that it will hold this time, compared to other times? How worried are you about the humanitarian situation and the lack of funding to the UN humanitarian fund?

L.T.G.: We really applaud the parties for moving in this direction. We see it as encouraging that they have agreed to ceasefire and that the ceasefire is holding and we will continue to work to support that effort.  As you know, our special envoys on the ground supporting that effort. On the humanitarian side. We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation on the ground, and this is why the ceasefire is so important, so that we can continue to find ways to get humanitarian assistance on the ground.

Interview: US envoy to UN on isolating Russia, Mideast peace
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg gives a press conference at Sanaa International Airport on April 13 following the declaration of the ceasefire on 2 April [Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty]

And I do applaud the efforts of the special envoy (Hans) Grundberg and his efforts, I think, has contributed to getting us to where we are today. But it's not over until we get them to full agreement into a permanent ceasefire and getting all of the parties sitting around the negotiating table to find a path forward that will allow the Yemeni people to have peace and security. And that's not going to happen as long as they continue to fight. The Yemeni people can depend on humanitarian support from the US government. We are one of the largest humanitarian donors to the situation on the ground there. And we will continue to look for ways to support the Yemeni people.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a member of President Joe Biden's cabinet.

Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian novelist and journalist. Her latest novel “The Book of Disappearance” was translated into English and published by Syracuse University Press in the US. Follow her on Twitter: @IbtisamAzem