WASHINGTON – Passing new sanctions on Iran will “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails” over its nuclear program and heighten the prospects of war, US President Barack Obama told Congress Tuesday in his sixth State of the Union address.
The speech, which focused on domestic policies and a rebounding American economy, included an extensive appeal to legislators not to pass the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015. The bill will be introduced in the Senate this week.
“Between now and this spring, we have 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,” the president said.
“There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” he continued. “But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.”
After 15 months at the negotiating table, US negotiators have become convinced that Iran will interpret Congress’s actions as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action, an interim nuclear accord that has set the terms for talks.
Obama administration officials also believe that US allies will sympathize with Tehran’s perspective.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort.”
In the House chamber, where such speeches are traditionally measured by the tally of ovations and the depth of applause, Obama’s statements on Iran earned tepid support. Faint claps passed quickly, and no one stood.
In last year’s address, the president issued a similar veto threat on a bill that was nearly identical. This time, a Republican-controlled Senate guarantees the bill will get a vote. Its language will be marked up in committee rooms on Thursday.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) told CNN after the speech that the president was requesting that congressional leadership delay a vote on the bill until March – the deadline for a political framework agreement between diplomats on a comprehensive nuclear accord.
“That’s something Democrats and Republicans are exploring,” Schumer said.
But speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, senior Republican congressional aides said their leadership was finished with delaying a vote.
“They got their delay,” one aide said.
The bill is likely to receive a vote just after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in mid-February, another aide said, if not before.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the role of Congress in negotiations with Iran on Wednesday morning, prompting a reaction from one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey).
“The more I hear from the administration in its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran,” the Democratic senator said. On Tuesday night, cameras caught a visibly irked Menendez sitting through the foreign policy section of the president’s remarks.
“It feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with original sin,” he continued.
“An illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years that they are unwilling to come clean on.”
Also distinct from his 2014 address was the president’s comments on violent extremism (he did not use the terms “Islamic” or “Islamist” extremism).
While Obama mentioned an “evolving” al-Qaida last year, he directly addressed the rise of Islamic State in Tuesday’s address, calling for Congress to pass a bill that would authorize the use of force specifically against the group worldwide.
On a broader scale, the president outlined a foreign policy he called “persistent” and “steady,” absent of “bluster” and driven by patient, resolved leadership.
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” Obama said.
“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.
That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference.”
In the 7,000-word address, the president did not mention relations with Israel, beyond noting that a nuclear deal with Iran would secure the Jewish state. He did not mention the Palestinians.