Analysis: Obama casts Iran diplomacy as fateful moment

In address, US president sets high stakes for nuclear talks with Iran while casting doubt on the likelihood of their success; Obama's decision to condition efforts made speech notable.

US President Barack Obama makes a State of the Union address, January 28, 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama makes a State of the Union address, January 28, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program can mitigate the “risks of war.” Their success is a matter of national security for the United States. And yet talks are hard, constricted by time, and may very well fail, US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday night to Congress and the American people.
For those who closely follow the saga of Iran’s nuclear program and its standoff with the West, the president said nothing particularly new in this year’s State of the Union.
International sanctions, led by Congress and enforced by the executive, have forced Iran to the negotiating table.
Obama wants negotiations to proceed uninhibited by overzealous congressional action or subterfuges. The president would veto any future legislation.
All of this is well known.
What made the speech notable was the president’s decision to condition his efforts – to undersell the diplomacy he covets, but not to obligate himself to any specific policy should negotiations fail in six months’ time.
The president said he would “stand ready to exercise all options” should that point come: first and foremost, with additional sanctions, and ultimately with force if necessary.
But earlier in the speech, Obama characterized his reluctance to use force when other options are still seemingly available.
“As commander-in-chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office,” Obama said. “But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.
We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us.”
Comprehensive talks begin in earnest next month aimed at dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure once and for all.
That is the only bar that the members of Congress, and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, will accept. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has vowed not to dismantle Iran’s centrifuges, 20,000 in all, that can enrich uranium to weapons- grade levels in short order should they choose to proceed.
“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,” Obama said in his address, characterizing his White House and negotiating team as “cleareyed.”
“We’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Threading that needle will be a historic challenge; no one closely involved in the negotiations is particularly optimistic.
And yet, in his speech, the president gave the impression that even he is anxious to see the longstanding nuclear crisis finally come to an end.
Perhaps if negotiations fail, the president will revert to a policy of sanctioning Iran into the ground. Perhaps he thinks that more sanctions will result in an atmosphere more advantageous to world powers in a future, second round of peace talks, further down the line after this current push fails.
This seems unlikely. Obama has repeatedly expressed his view on sanctions as different from the perspective adopted by Congress. He believes there comes a point where they no longer serve as negative reinforcement, and are simply embarrassing to a proud Islamic Republic, which even under dire economic duress cannot afford to capitulate to Western pressure.
Thus, it seems the president might finally accept that this diplomatic effort is his best and last chance at a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Will Iran take that chance? Obama put it bluntly in his speech Tuesday night: “We’ll know soon enough.”