Obama urges Iran to seize opportunity of nuclear talks

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama urged the "entire" Iranian government Thursday to seize on nuclear talks with world powers to end Tehran's economic isolation.

Obama made a direct effort to build political support among Iranians in favour of the nuclear diplomacy led by the government of President Hassan Rouhani in an annual video message marking Nowruz new year celebrations.

Obama noted that Iranians elected the comparatively moderate Rouhani last year to strengthen the economy, improve their lives and engage constructively with the world.

"I hope that the entire Iranian government hears that message too," he said.

Blaming Iran's economic pain on "the choices of Iranian leaders," he said "you deserve better," as he made a case to the Iranian people about the importance of reaching a final nuclear deal, which could loosen the grip of sanctions on Iran's economy.

But, a day after the latest round of talks between P5+1 powers and Tehran wrapped up, Obama warned he was under "no illusions" and knew building on an interim deal, in which Iran froze aspects of its nuclear programme in return for limited relief from sanctions, would be difficult.

A new chapter

"There is a chance to reach an agreement if Iran takes meaningful and verifiable steps to assure the world that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only," Obama said.

The US leader said a permanent nuclear deal would mean more trade with the rest of the world for Tehran, higher economic growth, jobs for young Iranians and the chance for students to travel.

"If Iran seizes this moment, this Nowruz could mark not just the beginning of a new year, but a new chapter in the history of Iran and it's role in the world," he said.

Obama has battled to convince critics in the US Congress about the wisdom of his diplomatic approach and fought off a bid by lawmakers to impose new sanctions he said could scupper diplomacy.

Israel has expressed extreme skepticism over the interim deal and said a final agreement must include a complete dismantling of all Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

Obama says such a "perfect" solution to the years-long standoff is not practical, but that a way could be found to verifiably ensure that Tehran is not producing nuclear weapons.

New opportunity?

The Nowruz message was the latest in an annual series that Obama began in the first year of his presidency in 2009.

But until the election of Rouhani - with whom he spoke in a historic telephone call during UN meetings in New York last year - his advances were rejected.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who was instrumental in opening the talks, said in his own statement that although America and Iran had suffered "harsh winters" in the past, a new opportunity was at hand.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday he saw signs a long-term nuclear deal could be reached after the latest talks in Vienna.

The next meeting will come in April.

Under the interim deal struck in November, the two sides are aiming for a long-term deal by July 20.

There are four key issues in any agreement: the status of Iran's Arak heavy water reactor - which Israel fears could offer an alternative route to a bomb - its enrichment of uranium, civil nuclear cooperation and the lifting of Western sanctions.

The six powers - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany - want Iran to reduce permanently, or at least long-term, the scope of its nuclear activities to make it extremely difficult for it ever to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has always denied any such ambition.