Lausanne, SWITZERLAND -- Nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran are set to go down to the wire, with direct talks breaking off Friday afternoon and scheduled to restart next Thursday in Switzerland. With both the U.S. and Iran divided over the terms of an agreement to freeze the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, President Obama made a plea via video to the Iranian people in an attempt to inject momentum into these highly-sensitive negotiations. Referring to the emerging deal as the "best opportunity in decades," he acknowledged the start of the Persian New Year as a chance to reset the relationship between the two long-time foes. The next days and weeks, he said, would be critical to peacefully resolving questions about Iran's atomic program.
"This moment may not come again soon," Obama said.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - Iran's top nuclear negotiator - gave a swift response to the appeal from his own Twitter account. He emphasized that Iran was ready to cut a deal, and said it is up to the U.S. to make a decision.
"Iranians have already made their choice: Engage with dignity. It's high time for the US and its allies to chose (sic): pressure or agreement," he tweeted.
Zarif later told reporters that he hoped to reach an agreement by next week. He and Iran's top atomic scientist have been locked in five days' worth of marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and their top advisors.
They are all racing to meet a Mar. 31 deadline. If the diplomats and scientists working here in Lausanne are not able to agree on a political understanding by that time, President Obama has said the U.S. will walk away. That sense of urgency is not felt by all of the U.S.'s negotiating partners, particularly France, which is willing to continue to negotiate alongside Russia, China, U.K., Germany and the European Union. That alliance, known as the P5+1, is made up of the U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
Zarif told reporters that he hoped to reach a deal next week, but needed to fly back to Tehran on Friday night. The break at the end of the week also coincided with the death of Sekineh Payvandi, the mother of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Zarif and other members of the Iranian negotiating team plan to pay their respects back home.
President Rouhani's own brother, Hossein Fereydoun, who is part of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, skipped Friday's meetings to mourn his mother in Tehran. A U.S. official confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other U.S. negotiators privately visited with Fereydoun before his departure in order to extend their condolences. Images of that outreach were broadcast across Iranian news platforms, and seemingly underscored how far the two sides have come in the past two years. Before that, U.S. officials were prohibited from even meeting with members of the Iranian government.
Yet the two sides still have far to go. John Kerry is expected to meet on Saturday in London with his German, British and French counterparts to discuss their strategy to broker this deal with Iran. He then plans to return to Washington before launching back into the talks next week.