President Obama, in his Tuesday evening State of the Union address, implored Congress to allow Iran nuclear talks to proceed with "a strong and confident America."
"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," he told the joint session of lawmakers. "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."
Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have stared down a majority of lawmakers -- including many from their own party -- who have urged passage of a new bill that would heighten economic sanctions against Iran if diplomatic progress is not made toward a long-term deal that substantially reduces Tehran's capacity to build a nuclear weapon. However, Obama has argued that fresh sanctions would squelch any potential of turning back Iran's atomic program, and Reid has not allowed the legislation to come to a floor vote.
The United States and five other world powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom -- in November inked an interim agreement with Tehran under which the Middle Eastern state agrees to a set of restrictions on its atomic-energy projects in exchange for some sanctions relief. Iran continues to maintain that its nuclear ambitions remain peaceful, and has insisted it retains a right to continue uranium enrichment and other atomic activities for civil energy production, medical needs and research.
The president -- touting the strength of a policy of "diplomacy backed by pressure" -- in the Tuesday speech said the imposition of sanctions had brought Iran to the negotiating table. But he repeated his threat to veto any sanctions legislation that Congress may pass during a six-month period that runs through June, during which the interim deal is in place and talks for a permanent accord are ongoing.
"As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium," Obama said in the just-over-one-hourlong speech devoted mainly to domestic issues. "It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, 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 said the talks "will be difficult" and "may not succeed," noting that U.S. diplomats are "clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies."
"The mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away," Obama said.
However, noting that the talks do not rely on "trust" for success, he asked lawmakers to "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," Obama said. "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."
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who delivered the 10-minute Republican response to the State of the Union speech, did not address the issue of the Iran negotiations in her remarks.