In State of the Union, Obama reiterates vow to veto Iran sanctions bills

President says ‘no guarantees’ Tehran talks will succeed; Alan Gross, released from Cuban prison last month, gets standing ovation

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on January 20, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/MANDEL NGAN)
US President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on January 20, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: AFP/POOL/MANDEL NGAN)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama vowed to veto any bill that would place additional sanctions on Iran, while receiving ringing applause for his commitment to “take down terrorists and their allies” in a State of the Union speech largely defined by its focus on domestic policy.

“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material,” Obama touted during his speech before a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate. The annual report by the president is mandated by the Constitution.

In his sole mention of Israel in the lengthy speech, Obama said that the US has “a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.” In addition to Israel, the Gulf states and particularly Saudi Arabia have expressed significant concern regarding the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama warned that “there are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” but added that “new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”

“It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress,” he continued. Obama left a military option on the table, noting that “the American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”

In the coming weeks, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to be introduced, calling for an automatic renewal of sanctions against Iran in the event that the president fails to submit to Congress the details of a comprehensive deal reached with Iran and the required “verification assessment” by July 5. Menendez and Obama reportedly faced off verbally about the bill late last week during a Democratic retreat.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) has said that he is also drafting legislation that would allow Congress to vote on any potential agreement with Iran — a bill that is also expected to face a presidential veto threat.

Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks quickly responded to Obama’s comments in a statement following the speech, although the official Republican response — delivered by first-term Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) — did not directly mention Iran at all.

“Despite pleas from Congress and the international community, the president, after exhaustive negotiations to halt their program, is rewarding Iran with yet more time,” Brooks complained. “The Obama administration’s Iran policy is failing. Congress needs to place enhanced sanctions on Iran to demonstrate that we are serious about halting their nuclear weapons program. The president’s veto threat will only empower and embolden Iran to continue as a threat to the entire region and world.”

But foreign policy also offered a rare moment of bipartisan enthusiasm, as members of both houses of Congress rose to their feet to salute Alan Gross, the Jewish man recently freed from a Cuban jail as a result of opened channels between the two countries.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said.

Alan Gross, recently freed after being held in Cuba since 2009, points back at US President Barack Obama after being recognized during the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the US Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Alan Gross, recently freed after being held in Cuba since 2009, points back at US President Barack Obama after being recognized during the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the US Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.” Calling on Congress to “begin the work of ending the embargo,” Obama concluded that “after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.”

Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009, while he was working in the country as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development. He was released on humanitarian grounds in mid-December 2014, after five years in prison.

“Welcome home, Alan,” the president said, turning toward Gross who sat in the balcony of the crowded hall, directly behind First Lady Michelle Obama. Gross, still missing teeth as a result of the poor health care he received while imprisoned in Cuba until last month, mouthed “thank you” to the president in response.

Obama declared that the United States stands “united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.” He promised to “continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks and called on Congress to approve new war powers against Islamic State militants.

Obama argued that US military leadership in Iraq and Syria was stopping the Islamic State’s advance, but asked lawmakers “to show the world that we are united in this mission” with a war authorization vote. Republican lawmakers have said they are prepared to work with him to pass such a measure if he sends a proposal up to Capitol Hill.

Obama said America learned “some costly lessons” in the fight against terrorism since the September 11, 2001, attacks, and they are guiding his approach to fight the Islamic State extremists.

“Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group,” Obama said. “We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”

Obama said he believes in moving forward with “a smarter kind of American leadership” that combines military power with strong diplomacy. “That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve,” Obama said. “When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads, when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world,” he said. “That’s what our enemies want us to do.”

“We reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies,” he said.

Obama also spoke out against both “deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world” as well as against “offensive stereotypes of Muslims,” although the first statement was greeted by applause, while the latter — made seconds later — was not.

Unlike last year, when Obama mentioned in passing the US-brokered attempts to achieve a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there was no mention of the Palestinians whatsoever, and a reference to Israel only in the context of Iran.

While reserving the right to act unilaterally against terror, Obama’s foreign policy message seemed to largely echo the principles of his West Point speech delivered in May 2014. In that address, Obama emphasized multilateralism and a focus on aiding regional forces in combating terror, rather than unilateral shows of military force.

“We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents,” Obama proclaimed, citing the progress with both Cuba and Iran — as well as the struggle against IS, the increased economic isolation of Russia, and the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan — as examples of this policy.

AP contributed to this report.

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