Obama courts Iran in charm offensive

The Obama administration is turning on the charm, as it aims to secure the framework of a nuclear deal with Iran before a negotiating deadline later this month.

In the last week, both President Obama and first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama to host global summit in Chicago Kelly Clarkson says new song 'Go High' inspired by Michelle Obama Michelle Obama outshines all Democratic prospects for 2020 MORE have taken time to recognize Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as has Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBringing the American election experience to Democratic Republic of the Congo Some Dems sizzle, others see their stock fall on road to 2020 The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, who on Friday morning sent condolences to the Iranian president over his mother's death.   

Obama used his annual Nowruz message, which was released Thursday evening, to implore the Iranian people to “speak up for the future we seek.”

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“A nuclear deal now can help open the door to a brighter future for you — the Iranian people, who, as heirs to a great civilization, have so much to give to the world,” Obama said in video released by the White House.

Kerry, who is taking the lead in the international talks over Iran’s nuclear program, made a goodwill gesture of his own on Friday morning, expressing his condolences to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the death of his mother, Sakineh Peivandi.

“We share in his grief and that of his brother, Presidential Special Advisor Hossein Fereydoun, who has been participating in the talks in Lausanne, and we keep their family in our thoughts,” he said.

Kerry said the timing of the death would be especially difficult for Rouhani’s family.

“Such a loss is especially hard coming on the eve of Nowruz, traditionally a time when families gather together in joy and hope.”

The messages from Kerry and Obama come on the heels of a Nowruz celebration at the White House last weekend that featured a performance from a dance troupe and a Haft Seen display that is central to the holiday. It was the second Nowruz event held during the Obama administration.

“One of my favorite things about the White House is how it is truly the people’s house: a house that reflects the diversity of culture and traditions that make us who we are as a country,” Michelle Obama said at the event. “And Nowruz is one of those traditions.”

While previous administrations have recognized Nowruz, the outreach shows how much relations between Iran and the United States have changed since Rouhani, who the White House views as more moderate than his predecessors, took office in 2013.

The thaw in relations could lead to a nuclear agreement as soon as the end of this month, the self-imposed deadline for reaching a framework for an accord that could serve as a cornerstone of Obama’s second-term legacy.

Negotiators are reportedly working with a draft of a deal that would require Iran to reduce its centrifuge capacity by about 40 percent in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Though the administration has said it does not want to extend the talks, Kerry has indicated that an extension would be possible — but only if a draft of the deal is reached.  

Still, as warm as the White House has been to the Iranians in recent weeks, it has issued harsher pronouncements as well.

Less than half an hour after Kerry offered his condolences to Rouhani on Friday, the president issued a statement calling for the release of three Americans in Iranian custody.

Invoking the spirit of Nowruz, Obama called on the Iranians to release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

“It is especially painful that on a holiday centered on ridding one’s self of the difficulties of the past year, Jason’s mother and family will continue to carry the heavy burden of concern regarding Jason’s health and well-being into the new year,” he said of Rezaian.

The president also asked the Iranians to help locate Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared while in Iran in 2007. The Washington Post reported in 2013 that Levinson had in fact been in the country as part of a rogue mission for the CIA.

An official from the Treasury Department this week said that the administration is prepared to enact new economic sanctions against Iran if the talks fail.

The White House’s carrot-and-stick approach highlights not only the high-wire diplomacy being undertaken by negotiators in Switzerland, but also the increasing pressure from Congress.

Republicans and many Democrats are deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions, with some fearing Obama will strike a “bad deal” that will leave Tehran with the capacity to build a nuclear bomb.

Republicans have said that they will pursue additional sanctions against Iran, and Democrats have indicated they will not fight that effort once the end-of-March negotiating deadline passes.

"It's time to tell the American people the truth. These talks are not going to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, from getting a nuclear weapon," Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea GOP state lawmakers meet to plan possible constitutional convention MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement Friday.

"The Obama administration is circumventing the will of the American people, who do not support this deal."

Negotiators for Iran are facing political pressures as well, with hard-liners in their country reportedly arguing all economic sanctions against the country should be lifted as soon as a deal is struck — a condition the White House has said it will not accept.

With so many obstacles to a deal, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s displays of goodwill will help move the diplomatic talks along.

Obama, in his video message, struck a hopeful tone, saying it’s time for the U.S. and Iran to “seize this moment and the possibilities that can bloom in this new season.”

“I believe that our nations have an historic opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully — an opportunity we should not miss.”