Although foreign policy is only expected to play a minor role in President Obama's Tuesday night remarks, experts say the president has an important opportunity to address growing domestic concern about the nascent deal to scale back Iran's nuclear program.
Critics of how the Iran deal has played out so far say it would be wise for Obama to show he is not overly optimistic about talks with Tehran. Even if his remarks about the deal are brief, they said Obama should stress that administration officials are working with international partners to reinforce the sanctions that remain during the six-month interim agreement and promise even greater penalties if Iran fails to comply with the deal.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the administration is spending too much time and energy trying not to upset Iranian officials and should spend more time focusing on preventing all of their concessions from being easily reversed.
“As long as their economic situation is so distressed, I don't think [the Iranians] will walk away,” he said.
Ottolenghi said he expects Obama to use the State of the Union speech to once again plead for more patience, especially in the Senate where a new sanctions bill has strong bipartisan support and gained momentum in early January.
But Obama should also be preparing the U.S. for a possible failure of the negotiations, the Brookings Institute's Middle East scholars Robert Einhorn and Kenneth Pollack wrote in a paper released late last week.
“We need to prepare for the possibility that no agreement will be reached and Iran will attempt to turn that eventuality to their advantage,” they wrote. “To thwart that attempt, we would have to ensure that Iran bears the onus for any breakdown of the talks.”
The pair also called for the administration to work with Congress to have additional sanctions at the ready to “convey a clear message to Iran that movement toward or across the nuclear threshold would be met by a firm international response that could involve much stronger sanctions and perhaps more coercive measures.”
Earlier this month, the clock started ticking on a six-month deal to halt parts of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for nearly $4.2 billion in sanctions relief.
The next six months will test Tehran's commitment to complying with the deal with the goal of establishing a long-term, comprehensive agreement to permanently roll back Iran's nuclear capability.
But Iranian officials have sparked concern about their commitment to the long-term goal by publicly bragging that the U.S. has surrendered to Iran's will in the negotiations and arguing that the lower uranium enrichment could be easily reversed.
The administration's failure to make the details of the deal public — it released the full document to Congress and made public a partial summary — has only fueled fears that the Iranians can't be trusted and the deal concedes too much.
Before tackling the nettlesome issue of Iran, foreign policy experts acknowledge Obama's his first priority will likely be sounding a promises-kept note on Afghanistan.
Fulfilling Obama's original campaign promise of ending two wars in the Middle East will impact the narrative of his legacy. Obama has repeatedly said he wants to be remembered as the president who helped the country move beyond a decade-long period of wars and terrorism.
The official end of the war will come with major troop withdrawals at the end of the year, but the Obama administration is still trying to negotiate a residual U.S. troop presence, mainly to buttress Afghanistan's military and its training, as well as launch strikes on terrorists within the country's borders.
Obama still wants Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a negotiated agreement spelling out the U.S. military's role beyond 2014. The U.S. would like to leave as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, but if Karzai or his predecessor refuses to allow the residual force, all American troops may be forced to depart by the end of the year.
The Obama administration failed to negotiate a deal allowing a residual level of troops to remain in Iraq, and in recent months the country has erupted in violent sectarian clashes that have given al Qaeda the renewed foothold the U.S. military worked hard to break in 2007 and 2008.
Foreign policy experts warn against leaving Afghanistan in the same vulnerable condition.
The Obama administration has even more riding on its efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
In addition to these two Middle East flashpoints, the Obama also is likely to make a passing mention of Secretary of State John Kerry's renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although there is little progress to report. The talks began last year but the two sides remain entrenched after months of negotiations with no breakthrough expected.
In a related foreign policy matter -- the civil war in Syria where Iran backs the Syrian government in the three-year fight against opposition groups seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster -- Obama will be hard-pressed to point to any positives. Last week's international Syrian peace talks in Switzerland, which stretched into the weekend, got off to a rocky start and aren't expected to move both sides any closer to a transitional government to end the bloodshed.
Obama recently told New Yorker writer David Remnick that he is “haunted” by the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000, but has no plans for an American intervention that could dramatically turn the outcome to the opposition's favor.