Much of the immediate pre-speech hype surrounding Tuesday night’s State of the Union address focused on the fact that it was taking place amid a brand new crisis in the Persian Gulf, as 10 U.S. sailors were detained by Iranian forces on Tuesday, possibly after inadvertently drifting into Iranian waters. The incident takes place just days before the landmark nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and six world powers is expected to go into effect.
So how did Obama address it? He didn’t. Iran did come up in the speech, but Obama chose to keep the focus on the deal itself rather than the latest complications:
[W]e built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.
That’s all true, but avoids some rather large recent developments, including Iran’s illegal tests of ballistic missiles, which had the administration considering implementing new sanctions against its government last month. With the deal in place, it would also have been welcome to hear Obama discuss Iran’s continued imprisonment of several American citizens, including the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian and former marine Amir Hekmati, whose families were in attendance at the speech as the guests of members of Congress.
Completely ignoring the incident in the gulf was an odd choice, and addressing it would not necessarily have undermined the case for the deal. While the specifics of the incident are still unclear, the Pentagon says the Iranian government has pledged to return the sailors Wednesday, after negotiations between the two sides including a conversation between John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who worked closely together during the nuclear negotiations. If this potential crisis between two countries that have appeared on the brink of armed conflict in recent years can be resolved quickly through negotiation, that’s not an argument against engaging with Iran; it’s an argument for it—one worth highlighting.