WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Foreign policy seldom makes headlines in the State of the Union speech, but President Barack Obama cannot avoid it with U.S. forces fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan and American diplomats trying, with no obvious success, to curb nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Below are some of the major national security topics that Obama may touch on when he speaks in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber at 9 p.m. on Tuesday (0200 GMT on Wednesday) in a widely-watched, televised address.
Now in its 10th year, the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan is likely to be the foreign policy issue of greatest interest to most Americans.
Obama has promised to start bringing home some of the roughly 97,000 U.S. troops in the country in July.
Whether the start of the U.S. withdrawal is token, or more substantial, there is little doubt that significant forces will stay in Afghanistan through the end of 2014, when they hope to move into to a supporting role, and for years beyond.
In Afghanistan, as in neighboring Pakistan, Obama is working with allies -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari -- who are beset by domestic problems from corruption to insurgency and widely seen as weak.
Working with major powers, the United States has sought for years to persuade Iran to abandon what it suspects is a nuclear weapons effort under cover of a civil atomic energy program.
The so-called P5+1 group -- Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany -- met with Iranian officials in Istanbul on Friday and Saturday, but the talks ended without any sign of progress.
Uranium enrichment can yield fuel for nuclear power plants or, if processed to a much higher degree, can produce fissile material for atomic bombs.
Iran has consistently said its nuclear program is to generate electrical power, not bombs.
The United States and its partners have pursued a two-track approach of negotiating with Tehran -- with which Washington cut diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- while imposing both U.N. and unilateral sanctions.
U.S. officials had said what they wanted to achieve in Istanbul was some sort of commitment to a negotiating process with Iran so that the two sides continue to meet in the hope that some kind of deal can eventually be struck.
However, the talks ended without even an agreement to meet again, though an aide to Iran’s chief negotiator told Reuters there would be another round of discussions, even if the timing and venue were undecided.
The United States appears to be inching toward a resumption of aid-for-disarmament talks with North Korea, which has twice conducted nuclear tests and has stepped up belligerent behavior toward South Korea in the last year.
The isolated, impoverished North is accused of having sunk a South Korean war ship on March 26, killing 46 sailors, and it shelled an island on November 23, killing four South Koreans.
The violence has raised anxieties on the divided Korean Peninsula and has added weight to the argument that it is better to negotiate with the North in the hopes of mitigating the threat it may pose.
The United States had made clear that it wants to see some kind of rapprochement between the North and South before any return to so-called six-party aid-for-disarmament talks.
In what may be a step in that direction, the South on Thursday agreed to high-level military talks with the North.
The South is likely to want some kind of an expression of regret from the North for the violence in 2010, and perhaps some promise to avoid such clashes in the future.
Should denuclearization talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States resume after more than a year, Obama would hope to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs -- a goal that is likely to be elusive.
Obama is likely to mention China but most unlikely to break new ground a week after holding extensive talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his state visit to Washington.
During the visit, Obama pressed Hu to let the value of China’s yuan currency rise and delivered a strong message on U.S. concerns over Beijing’s human rights record.
Beijing’s critics say its currency practices hurt the competitiveness of U.S. business by making Chinese exports artificially cheap, thereby propping up China’s employment at the expense of other countries, including the United States.
At the start of his presidency, Obama made clear that promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be a top priority after years of perceived neglect by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Halfway through his term, Obama has little to show for his efforts.
The U.S. president launched direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in September, saying he hoped to have the outlines of a peace deal within a year.
However, those talks unraveled within weeks when a partial Israeli moratorium on settlement construction expired and the Palestinians walked out on the negotiations, insisting that it must be extended and expanded to cover East Jerusalem.
The United States has been unable to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the settlement moratorium or to convince the Palestinians to resume talks without such a step. It is unclear what plan, if any, Obama may have to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Editing by Vicki Allen
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