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U.S. Navy Sailors Detained By Iran Ahead Of State Of The Union Address


National security is likely to be a major topic tonight when President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address. It's a fraught subject after grisly attacks in the U.S. and abroad. We're going to listen to some of what the president had to say on this topic in last year's State of the Union and what has happened since then with NPR's national security correspondent, David Welna.

Hi David.


SHAPIRO: First let's talk about reports that have just been coming in in the recent hours that roughly a dozen U.S. Navy sailors were detained today by Iran. What more can you tell us?

WELNA: Well, Ari, senior defense officials have told NPR that the American sailors were detained by Iran today as they sailed from Kuwait to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. They were aboard two small riverine patrol boats that were armed. And it's not clear where exactly they're being held. The U.S. State Department has been in touch with Iranian officials about this incident. The Americans have received assurances that the sailors' safety and well-being is being maintained and that they would, quote, "promptly be allowed to continue their journey."

SHAPIRO: It sounds like these communications between U.S. and Iranian officials could benefit from something President Obama talked about in his State of the Union address at this time last year.

WELNA: That's right. Obama talked then about an agreement that was later reached lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for a downsizing of that country's nuclear program.


BARACK OBAMA: Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.

SHAPIRO: Big picture - today's events notwithstanding - the nuclear agreement with Iran seems like a success for the president's national security agenda. Another big concern for him has been ending the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan. What was his take on the progress of that a year ago?

WELNA: Well, in a word - excellent. Barely two minutes into last year's address, President Obama in effect declared, mission accomplished in Afghanistan.


OBAMA: Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.

SHAPIRO: Over? Full stop - strong word. Was it over?

WELNA: Well, just as President Bush spoke too soon declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, I think Obama may have done the same with Afghanistan. He'd promised to withdraw half of the 9,800 U.S. troops there by the end of last year. Instead, he left troop levels unchanged. And while those forces are said to be on a train-and-assist mission, some continue to engage in combat, including a U.S. airstrike that mistakenly killed 42 civilians at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: And how about Iraq and President Obama's promise to wind down that war?

WELNA: Well, U.S. troops were pulled out from there a few years ago, but more than 3,500 are now back in Iraq, where the U.S. is also carrying out daily airstrikes. It's part of the new war the president's launched against the Islamic State both in Iraq and Syria. Here's his assessment of that effort last year.


OBAMA: In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL's advance.

WELNA: And the president could point now to some recent battlefield gains against the Islamic State, but his efforts to get other Arab nations to join that fight have largely been fruitless, as was an attempt to stand up a moderate rebel force in Syria.

SHAPIRO: Also in Syria over the last year, Russia became involved, carrying out airstrikes. When you look at President Obama's State of the Union address from last year, any indication that he saw that coming?

WELNA: Not at all. Russia's aggression in Ukraine was the big concern back then. Here's what he said.


OBAMA: Today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That's how America leads - not with bluster but with persistent, steady resolve.

SHAPIRO: David, apart from the Iran nuclear deal, is there anything you can point to that might show that this kind of low-key approach the president champions has worked?

WELNA: He certainly could - President Obama could taut the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which is something he promised in last year's State of the Union.


OBAMA: When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new.


SHAPIRO: But still no deal to empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

WELNA: That's right, despite the president's vow to do so.


OBAMA: Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job, and I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It's time to close Gitmo.


WELNA: Since then, two dozen men have been transferred out of Guantanamo, and 10 more are to leave later this week. That would leave just over 90 still there, and it'll be interesting to hear what the president might say tonight about how he'd close that facility in the year he has left in office.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's David Welna. Thanks, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.