Zakaria: Obama's U.N. speech very intelligent
September 24th, 2013
02:44 PM ET

Zakaria: Obama's U.N. speech very intelligent

CNN speaks with Fareed about President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations, and what it says about U.S.-Iran ties.

Obama said: "We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement. I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government in coordination with others."

That was a significant development given the long three decades history between these two countries.

It was a significant development. And he pointed out that they had heard encouraging words from the Supreme Leader, from the president. He also reciprocated by talking about how he wanted to deal with Iran with mutual respect. This is a phrase that Iranians have often used. I think it was carefully chosen by the president.

The Iranians have often said we want you to treat us with respect. We don't like the idea of being told, for example, that there are carrots and sticks as part of the policy. We are not an animal. We are a great nation. So Obama tried, it seemed to me, to mirror the kind of language the Iranians want to hear that accords them some respect.

What I was struck by was this was not a speech, though, designed to make headlines. Both the things you pointed out were the parts that made news, but by and large it was really using the bully pulpit of the United Nations to educate people about what America's policy and what its interests are, particularly in the Middle East. He laid it out methodically, acknowledging criticism, reminding people why the United States had done certain things in Egypt, done certain things in Libya.

And in that sense, [Obama] sort of took on the role that he has often taken on which is a kind of "explainer in chief," and did it very well. I thought it was a very intelligent speech. He laid out the ground work.

More from GPS: Why Obama shouldn't talk to Rouhani

It also reminded us that the president actually has a pretty ambitious agenda. You know if you think of the three things he talked about really – Syria, Iran and the Middle East peace process. Syria is a crisis thrust upon the administration, thrust upon the world. But the other two were choices made by the Obama administration to pursue some kind of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli peace process. If there's movement on all three fronts, maybe he will end up deserving that Noble Peace Prize that he was awarded.

A lot of U.S. analysts have suggested that, if there is a breakthrough, and potentially there could be a breakthrough between the U.S. and Iran right now, the international sanctions led by the U.S. have really made a dent on the life of the people of Iran, and maybe that's going to be a major factor in convincing the Iranian people and President Rouhani that maybe it's time for a change.

There’s no question that that has played a huge role. The White House did an internal study where they tried to understand Iranian behavior over the last 30 years, and they found that the Iranians moved and were more conciliatory. But almost always when they faced pressure that it was actually a rational behavior, but you had to pressure them.

And so they put together this very impressive international set of sanctions. That's why they took it through the U.N. Now here's the twist – the sanctions have been put in place by law, by Congress. The president does not have the ability to unilaterally waive those sanctions.

So if the Iranians start complying, doing the kinds of things he's talking about – transparency, verifiable acts – he actually doesn't have the ability to deliver the carrots, if one may call them that, to the Iranians.

So he's now going to be placed in a very awkward position where he can encourage this process, but it's not clear that he can actually…we all worry about Rouhani being able to deliver. The Iranians, I'm sure very smart about this, are wondering whether Obama can deliver.

On the edges, he does have a little flexibility, but you're right. Congress did pass laws that, in effect, will tie his hands to a certain degree. But on the edges, he's already, without a lot of publicity the last few weeks, he's eased some visits for athletes, some exchanges, cultural exchanges. But obviously the financial sanctions, the banking sanctions, those are going to require legislation, and you're right. There could be a fight in Congress.

Especially with this Congress. Remember, it has to go through the House.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Iran • United Nations

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