WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama delivered a forceful veto threat in front of Congress, imploring members at his State of the Union speech Tuesday not to pass a bill to slap more sanctions on Iran.
"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible," Obama said. "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."
Obama has continually vowed to veto a sanctions bill. However, warning lawmakers on their own turf ratcheted up pressure by the president to avoid that route. Obama's remarks were met with halting applause in the chamber. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not applaud during the president's comments about Iranian diplomacy.
Obama devoted about three minutes of his speech to the Iranian issue, signaling the importance of the diplomatic effort. However, Obama himself in December gave negotiations to halt Iran's nuclear program not more than a 50-50 chance of succeeding.
Fifty-eight senators have signed onto a bill sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that appears to conflict with a Nov. 24 agreement between Western powers and Iran saying the U.S. government would not impose additional sanctions during an interim agreement. Iran's foreign minister told Time in December that a deal to resolve Iran's nuclear program would be "dead" if the U.S. imposes additional sanctions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly said that he has no plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. That means that even with the support of a majority of senators, the bill may not reach Obama's desk. (The House of Representatives passed a stricter sanctions bill in July, so a Senate bill would almost certainly pass in the GOP-controlled House.)
Though the Senate bill's authors have said sanctions would only be triggered if Iran walks away or violates an agreement, critics argue that the bill would impose additional conditions -- such as limits on ballistic missile testing and financing of terrorist groups -- that would violate the November interim agreement.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a co-sponsor of the sanctions bill, agreed that it should not be brought to a Senate vote during the interim agreement. "I did not sign it with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating," Manchin said on MSNBC after Obama's speech. "I signed it because I wanted to make sure the president had a hammer if he needed it and showed them how determined we were to do it and use it if we had to." He added that the U.S. needs to "give peace a chance."
Obama defended diplomatic efforts with Iran in his speech.
"And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program –- and rolled parts of that program back -– for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges," he said. "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 went on, "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."
Obama called Iran less powerful than the Soviet Union and challenged those who think a permanent nuclear pact can't be reached without new sanctions. "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," he said.