The most important foreign policy component of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was its passage about Iran. For the first time, Obama personally vowed to veto legislation being considered by Congress—which enjoys strong support on the Hill—that would impose new economic sanctions on Tehran. As Obama put it:
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. 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. 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.
The veto threat itself was not surprising; the White House has issued it before. What was striking was something that Obama did not say. In earlier responses to proposed Iran sanctions legislation on Capitol Hill, Obama administration officials had accused the bill’s backers of lending de facto support for what White House press secretary Jay Carney called a “march to war.” Such talk has infuriated even some Democrats.
Obama’s tone was much softer Tuesday. Rather than make accusations—that “risks of war” line was far more generalized than Carney’s language—he struck a more defensive tone, assuring Congress and the country that he’s not naive about diplomacy. “These negotiations will be difficult,” Obama said. “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. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
Perhaps the angry bipartisan reaction to the White House’s earlier rhetoric convinced Obama to skip the aggressive rhetoric towards sanctions supporters: There’s some evidence that the push for more sanctions is partly fueled by resentment toward the White House on Capitol Hill.
Some recent ominous signs about the prospects for a nuclear deal may also have Obama wary of positioning himself too clearly against the Iran hawks. He could also be troubled by polling that suggests Congress has the better of the public opinion argument.
Or it may be as simple as a desire, in a speech overwhelmingly about domestic policy, to avoid headlines about a potential war.