Obama breaks with past Iran rhetoric at UNGA

Obama breaks with past Iran rhetoric at UNGA

There’s a lot of coverage today of Barack Obama’s tough words for Iran at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), but the president has expressed the main points in the speech — America’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the limited timetable for a diplomatic solution — before, notably in an interview with the Atlantic and a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this year.

Still, as the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg notes today, the U.N. General Assembly is "not exactly a Hadassah convention." And Obama’s comments on Iran’s nuclear program before world leaders on Tuesday were far more aggressive than the language he’s employed in past UNGA addresses.

Here’s what Obama said about the Iranian nuclear program today: 

Time and again, [Iran] has failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations.

Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Rewind to 2011:

The Iranian government cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful, it has not met its obligations, and it rejects offers that would provide it with peaceful nuclear power. North Korea has yet to take concrete steps towards abandoning its weapons and continues belligerent action against the south. There is a future of greater opportunity for the people of these nations if their governments meet their international obligations. But if they continue down a path that is outside international law, they must be met with greater pressure and isolation. That is what our commitment to peace and security demands.

And 2010:

As part of our effort on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. I also said — in this hall — that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities. And that is what we have done.

Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences. Through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.

Now let me be clear once more: The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.

And 2009:

I have said before and I will repeat: I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and more secure peace for [Iran and North Korea] if they live up to their obligations. But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards, if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people, if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East, then they must be held accountable.

Obama, in other words, broke new ground today at UNGA by warning that the administration’s patience on diplomacy and sanctions is wearing thin, outlining the dire global implications of a nuclear Iran, and stating that the United States will not permit Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Where Obama stopped short, however, is in repeating his assertion that all options — including military force — are on the table when it comes to preventing Iran from getting the bomb — a key issue in the U.S. election (he opted for the vaguer formulation that "the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon"). Perhaps Obama wanted to avoid comparisons to George W. Bush, who made the case for invading Iraq at UNGA in 2002, just months before launching the operation.