In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama rightly reiterated his commitment to “negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran.” This has been a key foreign policy objective for his administration since his inauguration and is one that enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. Preventing a nuclear Iran is one of the major national security challenges facing the United States for all the reasons the president listed in his speech: “secur[ing] America and our allies — including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”
The president also reiterated his commitment to veto attempts by Congress to help him achieve that objective through new sanctions legislation circulated this week. However, his remarks suggested a misunderstanding of bill in question, its likely effects, and Congress’ intent.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails,” the president declared last night. Yet, the congressional effort he was most likely referring to, the bipartisan “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015” drafted by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), does not impose new sanctions “at this moment in time” on Iran. Instead, it sets out the conditions under which additional sanctions might come into effect. These measures would only be triggered if Iran fails to reach a deal with the United States by the deadline specified by the president and the president assents to the sanctions. Since the earliest these measures could be triggered would be July 2015—and only if talks are fruitless—it is not these sanctions that would “guarantee that diplomacy fails” but the failure of diplomacy that would make possible these sanctions’ imposition.
Additionally, the president justified his veto threat by referencing the possibility of conflict. “That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill[:]… The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort.” The president is correct, the American people are certainly war weary and reluctant to get involved in another open-ended military commitment. The Kirk-Menendez bill, however, seeks to strengthen the United States’ hand in negotiations in order to reach a peaceful, diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it does not contain any military provisions or any mention of escalation.
If there is to be a viable deal to prevent a nuclear Iran, Congress and the White House are going to have to work together. Last night’s address suggests the state of the legislative-executive union, however, is fragile.