May 7, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2339

'Al-Hayat' Interview with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice

May 7, 2009
Special Dispatch No. 2339

In an interview with the London daily Al-Hayat, published May 1, 2009, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Dr. Susan Rice answered questions regarding the Obama administration's positions on Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, and Sudan.

Following are excerpts from the interview, conducted by correspondent Raghida Dergham, as published in Al-Hayat's English edition.[1]

On the Two-State Solution

Interviewer: "In the May 11 meeting on the Middle East organized by the Russians at the ministerial level, here at the Security Council – will you be representing the United States or will it be [U.S.] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton?"

Ambassador Rice: "Washington has not made a formal determination as to who will represent us, but either way we will be represented at the ministerial level."

Interviewer: "Because you are a cabinet member, obviously?"

Ambassador Rice: "Yes."

Interviewer: "Does that mean that a Quartet meeting will not be held on the sidelines? Are you qualified to be a partner to the Quartet?"

Ambassador Rice: "I don't think our [level of] representation will determine whether we can [participate] in the Quartet [meeting] or not. I think that is a separate discussion we will [conduct] bilaterally with the Russians and others, and I'm not here to [predict] what will happen in that regard."

Interviewer: "So you don't know if there will be a Quartet meeting?"

Ambassador Rice: "That is all I can say."

Interviewer: "What about the [U.N. Security Council] presidential statement that is being worked on? What is the most important thing for the United States – the affirmation of a two-state solution, or [something else]?"

Ambassador Rice: "Russia is working on the early stages of a draft presidential statement. It's still very much in preliminary form. In fairness to the Russians, I think that they ought to have an opportunity to share it with other members of the Council, and I don't want to preempt anything in that regard. Obviously, as President [Obama], Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy Mitchell have said on many, many occasions, the United States views a two-state solution as really the only viable way forward, as being in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians, and indeed the United States and the rest of the region. And that remains our focus. That's where we are placing our energy, and obviously, a Security Council presidential statement which reinforces the importance of this [solution] is constructive."

Interviewer: "[Is there] anything else that the United States would like to see at this point from a [Security] Council meeting on the Middle East at the ministerial level?"

Ambassador Rice: "Frankly, I think that a simple, streamlined message that reinforces the importance of a two-state solution, and which [is supported by] the international community, as represented in the Security Council, is the most important thing..."

Interviewer: "Do you believe that the position of the Israeli government, [as] presented by Netanyahu and Lieberman, [namely] that the Iranian [issue] should be resolved first, before we discuss the Palestinian issue – what is your reaction to that?"

Ambassador Rice: "First of all, while I've seen press reports to that effect, I don't know [that this is really] the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and to my knowledge it has not been conveyed to us as such, so I think we have to distinguish between what [might] be press speculation and what the President will [actually] hear when Netanyahu comes to Washington. I think we need to wait for that [in order] to know the outcome of the Israeli policy. That said, the U.S. views an Iran with nuclear weapons as a threat not only to Israel but to the broader region, to the Arab countries in the [region], and indeed to the United States [itself] and to countries further afield. And I've said repeatedly that this is a grave threat that needs to be dealt with effectively. Our strong preference and our aim would be to use all elements of American power to try to accomplish that – including direct diplomacy and engagement. And that would be, as the President has said on numerous occasions, the way to approach [this issue]."

Interviewer: "I want to get back to Iran, but I want to understand one thing [about] this Iran-Palestine equation. Do you think the administration is willing… I discuss with you because you are a member of the NSC... Are you willing to postpone [the Palestinian] track until Iran is dealt with first?"

Ambassador Rice: "That's a hypothetical [question]."

Interviewer: "No [it isn't]. Lieberman has said that."

Ambassador Rice: "Let me underscore that I think it's a hypothetical [question]."

Interviewer: "Why do you think it's hypothetical when the [Israeli] foreign minister said it?"

Ambassador Rice: "The foreign minister, who obviously plays a very important role in the formulation of Israel's foreign policy, has not said this to President Obama. And until they have an opportunity to have a discussion, I don't think we should prejudge its context. That's why I say it's hypothetical. That said, the President has been very clear, [saying] that we don't see any logic in efforts to delay the work to achieve a two-state solution. As he said following his meeting with King Abdullah [of Jordan], it is in Israel's interest, in the Palestinians' interests, and indeed in America's interest, that progress be made as rapidly as possible to achieve a two-state solution..."

On the Lebanese Elections and the U.S. Position towards Hizbullah

Interviewer: "When Secretary [of State] Clinton was in Beirut on a surprise visit, she sent messages emphasizing the unity, independence and sovereignty of Lebanon. [On the other hand], she said something that led many to believe that the Obama administration is willing to accept dealing with Hezbollah if they win the election, and that the Obama administration is not going to make the [same] mistake as the Bush administration [by] not speaking to the elected government, as they did with Hamas when the [Palestinian] elections took place. Is this the right reading? When [Clinton] took questions, she was asked what [would happen] if the Hizbullah won the elections. [In her reply,] she didn't make any statements such as, 'No, we will not [speak to them, because] Hizbullah is a "terrorist" group according to the U.S.' So in interpreting her answers, some understood [that she meant to say] that the U.S. would be willing to live with the elections results. Whatever they will be, you will accept it. Was this not the intention?"

Ambassador Rice: "I know better than to try to interpret things that were said, much less things that were not said. I think that's just a risky proposition that I don't want to try to engage in."

Interviewer: "So there is nothing in the positions of the administration that would indicate a willingness to deal with Hizbullah at this point?"

Ambassador Rice: "First of all, the broad picture is the most important [issue for] the United States: a Lebanon that is sovereign, independent, free, and upcoming elections that will hopefully yield a moderate government that is free from outside interference. We will continue our efforts to be supportive of Lebanon's people and Lebanon's government in that context. Certainly our investment in working to build the capacity to strengthen the Lebanese armed forces are reflective of that, and I don't think it's helpful or wise to speculate on what the free elections – hopefully, devoid of violence and intimidation – will yield..."

On the U.S. Position regarding Hizbullah's Clandestine Activities in Egypt

Interviewer: "In his report on [U.N.] Resolution 1559, Ban Ki-Moon was rather strong in opposing Hizbullah's role in Egypt..."

Ambassador Rice: "In Egypt?"

Interviewer: "Yes. He said, 'I was concerned about the statements made by Hizbullah's leaders during the recent conflict in Gaza, exhorting the Egyptian military to defy its political leadership in support of the Hamas militants. Further, I am alarmed that Hizbullah publicly admitted to providing support to Gaza-based militants from Egyptian territory. Such activity indicates that Hizbullah operates outside Lebanese territory and beyond its stated national agenda. I condemn such unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign member state.' That is what I am referring to. It was paragraph 42 [of the report]. Do you agree with that? What do you think should be done next? Is there anything to be done next, once the Secretary-General has put this in a report?"

Ambassador Rice: "I think it is an accurate and fair assessment. And as we review all of the resolutions going forward, and I hope there will be an opportunity to reflect that sentiment in some of the resolutions."

Interviewer: "How worried is the Obama administration about attempts to destabilize Egypt?"

Ambassador Rice: "[Attempts] by...?"

Interviewer: "Those Hizbullah cells that – whether with Iranian support or independently – operated from the Egyptian territories, to the extent that the Egyptians see it as an infringement on their sovereignty."

Ambassador Rice: "Obviously, Egypt is a very important partner of the United States and an anchor in the region, playing a variety of constructive roles. Our interest is in seeing an Egypt that is stable and constructive but also moving ultimately in a direction of democracy, and that includes respect for human rights."

Interviewer: "You know, Ambassador, some are saying that Iran is emboldened even to the extent of interfering everywhere – not only in Iraq and Lebanon, but even in Egypt – because it, [that is,] the Iranian leadership, feels that the United States under the Obama administration 'is ready to embrace us.' So [they think:] 'there are no red lines, we can go ahead and take advantage of the situation right now. And we can impose a de facto situation'... What do you think about that?"

Ambassador Rice: "I am not sure, what are you saying?"

Interviewer: "What I am saying is that the Obama administration's openness to Teheran is being interpreted as an encouragement to some in Teheran to go ahead, and interfere not only through Hizbullah in Lebanon, not only in Iraq, but even as far as Egypt."

Ambassador Rice: "Well, first of all, it would be unwise for anyone to draw that conclusion from the Obama administration's willingness to engage Iran on an appropriate basis [regarding] its nuclear program and a range of other issues of concern. The [U.S.'s] prior approach, of excluding [the diplomatic] possibility left only two [other alternatives]. One was to effectively do nothing to impede Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions... The other alternative [was] to resort to nothing but military means in order to halt [Iran's nuclear activity]. By being willing to employ all elements of American power, including diplomacy, we are trying to explore a third avenue that doesn't entail an immediate resort to the use of force. And, indeed, our aim is to combine diplomacy, fully supported by the P5 + 1, [and] to do this in a very clear and transparent fashion with our Arab partners in the region, so that there's no misunderstanding of our intentions; and to communicate to Iran very clearly that [there are] two different paths [it can take]: a path that can lead away from its isolation in the international community, and alternatively, a path that could increase [the isolation], should they choose not to take this opportunity."

Interviewer: "What about the nuclear ambiguity? People are talking about nuclear ambiguity, [i.e. the option of] living with a nuclear Iran without openly acquiescing to it – precisely because the Obama administration does not want to opt for the military route."

Ambassador Rice: "Now wait a minute, I don't know what you mean by 'nuclear ambiguity.' That's not something the United States is discussing or contemplating. The President has been very clear: Iran with a nuclear weapons capability is not an outcome that is consistent with our interest or with regional security. So 'nuclear ambiguity' is somebody else's term that I certainly don't want to embrace..."

On Sudan

Interviewer: "My last question will be about ending impunity and the issue of justice. I have to ask you about Darfur. Madam Ambassador, you have been personally involved with this issue. So, what next? What's next, realistically, when the president of Sudan is basically saying, 'I'm going to get away with it'? You [hear] positions like that of the current head of the African Unity [Organization], who says that the ICC is something that we should dismiss and not talk about, almost calling it a terrorist organization. What are you going to do about it? What's being done behind the scenes? How adamant are you [about this issue]?"

Ambassador Rice: "There are many different [aspects] to this, as you know, Raghida... Our position has been and remains that justice needs to be served and that the findings of the ICC are legitimate. But we're dealing with simultaneous multiple imperatives with respect to Sudan. Justice is one. Stopping the killing, the dying and the genocide in Darfur is vitally important. And this [too], as you know, has two different [aspects]. One [aspect] is the consequence of the forced expulsion of the 13 international NGOs, and the risk that this poses to the civilians whom they served – that's an urgent concern. Also vitally important is the killing and dying that preceded the expulsion of the NGOs.

"And [also] very important is an effective implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement, which is vital to the successful conclusion of another extremely deadly conflict [in Sudan]... We have an interest in accomplishing all of those things, and we don't have the luxury of sequencing them, because they're all time-sensitive. So what Presidential Envoy Gen. [Scott] Gration is doing now, on his second trip to the region since his appointment, is first and foremost trying to explore ways and means to deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis in Darfur, [which is] a consequence of the expulsion of the NGOs. And it is by working with the U.N., the NGOs, the Government of Sudan and the SPLM, that we can find ways and means to mitigate that [crisis]. We feel that this is very important to try and do...

"With respect to Darfur, and the underlying killing and dying, there are two challenges. One is improving civilian protection, so that those who are at greatest risk have a greater measure of protection – and that's why it is a vitally important challenge to strengthen and augment UNAMID and get it up to full strength and make it effective. The other is resolving the underlying conflict and contributing to the diplomacy that must accompany [this measure]. And similarly, there are diplomatic and other imperatives with respect to the North-South [conflict]."

Interviewer: "The ICC arrest warrant, that's what I really want to know [about]."

Ambassador Rice: "But you can't... Look... My message, Raghida, is [this]: We don't have the luxury of looking at each [aspect] in isolation. You tell me what you think is the obvious answer on the arrest warrant. We want to see justice served. We think that you can't have lasting peace without justice. But we want to see justice served [first of al] for the people of Darfur, who are at immediate risk. We want to see justice served for the people of the South."

Interviewer: "So you can live with the non-implementation of the ICC arrest warrant, then?"

Ambassador Rice: "No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that you can't separate these things and accomplish the multiple simultaneous imperatives that we are in fact dealing with."

[1] Al-Hayat (London), May 1, 2009. The text has been edited for clarity.

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