Seeing thaw, Obama seeks Iran nuke deal

President Obama formally launched diplomatic talks with Iran on its nuclear program Tuesday despite widespread distrust about that country’s intentions. [WATCH VIDEO]

Speaking at the United Nations, Obama announced he had tasked Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran.

He also said the White House believes there is a real chance Iran is willing to enter talks that would end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

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“We are encouraged that President [Hassan] Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama told the world body. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Obama and Rouhani’s paths did not cross at the General Assembly meeting, and there was no historic meeting or handshake.

Iranian television said Rouhani and his delegation skipped a luncheon with Obama and other world leaders because alcohol was being served. The Obama administration, however, said it was open to an informal meeting but that Iran wasn’t ready for Obama and Rouhani to meet.

“We have said publicly, and we also said privately to the Iranians, that we’re open to having discussions on the margins of UNGA — informal discussions, not a bilateral meeting,” a senior administration official told reporters at the U.N. “That proved to be too complicated [politically] for the Iranians to do at this point.”

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran researcher at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said a meeting posed significant risks for Rouhani since anti-Americanism remains a core tenant of Iran’s political culture.

“I don’t think the moment is yet ripe for a handshake or any talks,” she said.

Republicans in Congress criticized Obama’s actions, and warned Rouhani’s softer rhetoric was a ruse to get the United States to ease sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

“The reason Hassan Rouhani is here, the reason this initiative is being proposed, is to get sanctions lifted and to buy time for Iran to complete their program,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs panel, told Fox News. “They are so close — maybe a year away. And that’s why we need exactly the opposite strategy than the one the president has just suggested.”

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) warned Obama that Congress would not accept any deal that doesn’t include “transparent, tangible and verifiable steps” that Iran is ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

They also urged Obama to focus not only on the nuclear file, but also on Iran’s support for Syria President Bashar Assad and international terrorism.

“Kind words are not enough,” they said in a joint statement.

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to question Obama about Iran when the two meet at the White House next week.

“I appreciate President Obama’s statement that Iran’s conciliatory words will have to be matched by action that is transparent and verifiable,” he said in a televised statement. “Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb.”

In his speech, the president called on Iran to meet its obligations under the U.N. Security Council resolutions, which include requirements that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Rouhani has made it clear, however, that Iran wants to preserve its right to enrich uranium, but may be open to a deal that limits it below weapons-grade.

Some experts said that suggests it will be impossible for the two sides to get a deal.

“The Security Council resolutions basically require Iran to stop its nuclear program — and that ain’t going to happen,” said Flynt Leverett, a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and the senior director for Middle Eastern affairs in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Lawmakers in both parties have said Iran must agree to stop its enrichment program for sanctions to be lifted.

“Talks cannot be merely a stalling tactic, while Iran continues to move forward with aggressive enrichment of uranium,” McCain and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to Obama on Monday.

Discussions on the nuclear program will begin Thursday, when Kerry and the top diplomats of five other negotiating partners are scheduled to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It will be the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

— Updated at 8:41 p.m.