America's top "near-term" foreign policy priorities are preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and pushing for Middle East peace between Israelis and Palestinians, President Barack Obama said Tuesday during his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Obama also emphasized the importance of U.S. troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan and the lessons learned from both wars as tensions in Syria continue to simmer on the diplomatic agenda.
But it was Obama's continued willingness to pursue a diplomatic path forward with Iran that generated the most news during his 45-minute address.
"I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship," Obama said. "We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
Iran's recently elected President Hassan Rouhani has indicated he's open to diplomatic discussions related to Iran's nuclear program, but Obama warned in his speech that words would not be enough.
"To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable," Obama said, adding that Iran's choices have led to the current set of economic sanctions. "The world has seen Iran evade its responsibilities in the past and has an abiding interest in making sure that Iran meets its obligations in the future."
Turning to peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, Obama reiterated his support for a two-state solution and spoke more broadly about recent turmoil that has rocked the region, including in Libya, Egypt and Syria.
"The United States will at times work with governments that, at least in our view, meet the highest international expectation but who work with us on our core issues," he said. "Nevertheless, we will never stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent or supporting the principles embodied in the universal declaration of human rights."
Obama also bluntly told the world leaders assembled that despite a controversial track record of operating in the Middle East, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Egypt, the United States would continue to be a major player. "We will reject the notion that these principles are simply western exports incompatible with Islam or the Arab world; we believe they are the birthright of every person," he said. "And while we recognize that our influence will at times be limited, although we will be wary of efforts to impose democracy through military force, and although we will be at times accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency, we will be engaged in the region for the long haul."
Although Obama's speech wandered from policy specifics to more general themes, it was clear he was trying to let the world know he acknowledges missteps, such as working to balance security concerns with privacy concerns with regard to revelations about U.S. intelligence gathering and failure to impose democracy in Iraq through military means. He also tried to strike a leadership tone, trying to push countries into supporting U.S. goals – such as in Syria – despite their reluctance.
"We live in a world of imperfect choices," Obama said. "But sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder."