President Barack Obama started his fifth State of the Union speech on Tuesday, January 29, with the customary standing ovation that all president’s receive before beginning his hour-long address to his primary audiences: the U.S. Congress, the American people, and the international public. And like all presidents before him, Obama tried to use his exclusive primetime coverage to hash out the objectives that he hopes the country can achieve before the end of this year.
Obama devoted the vast majority of his time on domestic priorities, including the need to increase the national minimum wage, the importance of passing gun control legislation to chip away at violent crime in America, finally resolving the generations-long problem of immigration reform, and pledging to use his executive authority when Congress is either unwilling or unable to act. The president labeled the year 2014 as “a year of action” and “a breakthrough year for America,” despite the intense political polarization that has dominated Washington since Republicans retook the House of Representatives in 2010.
And as has become the norm in Obama’s recent SOTU speeches, he spent far less time on issues of foreign policy and national security. For observers of the Obama presidency and for the commentators who were monitoring the State of the Union speech before it even happened, this was not a surprise given the litany of domestic problems that the White House hopes to tackle over the next twelve months.
However, when Obama did focus on foreign policy matters, his strongest arguments revolved around the subject of Iran and its presumed nuclear weapons program—an issue that has pitted the Obama administration not only against Republican lawmakers, but dozens of legislators from others the president’s own party.
Despite arriving at an agreement with the Iranians this month which spells out how last November’s Joint Plan of Action will be implemented, the majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate remain opposed to what are viewed as overly-broad concessions that were offered to Tehran in exchange for scaling back its uranium enrichment program (among other restrictions). Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described his mood as “stunned” over how lopsided the interim nuclear deal is to Iran’s benefit—Tehran will receive at estimated $7 billion in sanctions relief over the next six months for essentially capping its nuclear progress. But he is far from being the only one harboring those feelings: Senator Robert Menendez, a senior Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is so weary of Obama’s negotiating tactics that he wrote and introduced legislation that, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, would slam Iran’s economy with additional sanctions on its construction, mining, and engineering sectors if they either back out of negotiations or fail to make an agreement deemed acceptable to Congress.
For the first time in a very long time, the majority of Republicans and Democrats are unified on a foreign policy issue. Unfortunately, the one issue that has bridged the Republican-Democrat divide is also the issue that the administration views as the biggest foreign policy item on its agenda.
If President Obama is feeling the heat, he didn’t show it in last night’s speech. Indeed, despite the congressional criticism, he faced Congress directly and doubled-down on his original policy of diplomatic engagement, however difficult and frustrating that engagement will be.
“These negotiations will be difficult. “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. But 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.”
Yet far more important than those words was Obama’s next paragraph, where he exposed his commitment to the tough diplomatic road ahead by repeating loud and clear that bipartisan support for more congressionally imposed sanctions will lose momentum in the Oval Office.
“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
The president, in essence, did what he had to do last night to put himself on record, and his message was simple: ‘this is the widest diplomatic opening that the United States has had with Iran for a decade, and I don’t intend to screw it up.’
Obama did something else with that statement that is just as important if there is any chance to conclude negotiations with the Iranians on a successful note—he assured the minority of lawmakers in the Senate who oppose passing another round of sanctions at the present time that they have the support of the White House. For people like Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada who is single-handedly blocking new sanctions from coming to the floor, this is the type of support that they have been looking for.
There is always the possibility that the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act” will pass with a wide bipartisan majority. Fifty-nine senators, including sixteen Democrats, have already co-sponsored the bill—one shy of a filibuster-proof majority. And there is always the chance that even if Obama exercises his veto power, the Senate could override it with support from two-thirds of its members. But for the time being, the president made a firm stand. Ultimately, the Obama administration is betting a large chunk of its foreign policy weight hoping that the Iranian nuclear crisis can be resolved peacefully. Whether Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of the State Department team can deliver is entirely up in the air.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., and an editor of the Atlantic Sentinel.