WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama highlighted the recently implemented nuclear interim agreement with Iran as a key victory for American foreign policy during Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address that largely focused on domestic topics. At the same time, the president railed against the bipartisan Senate bill that would threaten Iran with increased sanctions should it fail to comply with the interim agreement.
“It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade,” Obama told a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate during the annual report mandated by the Constitution.
“As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb,” Obama detailed.
Still, even within his triumphal declaration, Obama acknowledged that the road ahead was anything but smooth.
“With our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the president told Congress, bringing a tone of doubt into an otherwise stridently optimistic speech.
“These negotiations will be difficult,” Obama warned. “They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away.”
“If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon,” Obama continued. “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”
In November, the P5+1 states and Iran achieved a framework understanding toward an interim agreement to ensure that Iran would not be able to advance its nuclear weapons program. The interim agreement, which delineates Iranian steps to reduce its capacity to create a nuclear arsenal in exchange for sanctions relief, went in to effect on January 20.
With a recent poll indicating that Americans trust Iran less than any country other than North Korea, Obama emphasized that “these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.”
The same poll – released early Tuesday by the Israel Project –emphasized that Americans strongly supported the economic sanctions that have been in place against Iran since 2012, sanctions that, according to Obama’s speech “helped make this opportunity possible.”
But with the fate of a new bill that would impose additional sanctions on Iran should it fail to comply with the interim agreement uncertain in the Senate, Obama threatened that “if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.”
The bill alluded to by Obama, co-sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), has been a point of contention between the White House and a breakaway group of Democratic senators. Those senators have joined with an overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans to co-sponsor the bill, which is scant votes short of a veto-proof majority. Meanwhile, Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has avoided allowing the Senate to advance the legislation.
In his Tuesday evening speech, Obama railed against the bill, pleading with Senators gathered there “for the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”