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European leaders seeks common strategy as Iran deadline looms

EU leaders have met to discuss Iran's nuclear program as a key deadline approaches. Negotiators seek an agreement that satisfies Iran's nuclear ambitions while assuring the world that Tehran can't build the bomb.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and EU foreign affairs chief Frederica Mogherini on the sidelines of the EU summit in Brussels for a 40-minute meeting to talk Iran strategy.

Key differences between Iran and the P5+1 group - made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, as well as Germany - include the process of lifting sanctions and the amount of uranium Tehran would be allowed to enrich for its nuclear power plants.

"The meeting was to take stock of the situation so as to have a clear, coordinated European position

as March 31 nears

," an EU foreign affairs spokeswoman told the AFP news agency.

Iran denies developing nuclear weapons and says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

Even so, the West has imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran that have driven up inflation and constrained its ability to sell oil.

The most recent set of ongoing talks began in 2013 to ease sanctions in exchange for an agreement that will ensure Iran doesn't become a nuclear armed state.

US President Barack Obama

addressed the Iranian nation

during a televised address to coincide with the Persian New Year. "This year, we have the best opportunity in decades to pursue a different future between our countries," Obama said in his nearly five-minutes of remarks.

In an apparent response to the White House, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is currently engaged in negotiations with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland, urged the US and five other global powers to ease its hard line and make a deal.

In Tehran, ordinary Iranians say they are hopeful for a deal that would allow its economy to recover.

"Sanctions are bad for business, so the more relationships we have with the outside world, the better it will be," Hassan Sadraie, an 80-year-old Persian rug merchant, told AFP.

The US president faces an uphill battle in convincing the hawkish Republic Party, which controls the Congress, to agree on a deal. The United States also has close security and economic links with Iran's arch foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Hardliners inside Iran are also skeptical of inking a deal with the US which since the 1979 revolution has been hailed as "The Great Satan" for propping up previous oppressive regimes in Iran.

But optimists say a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington would help the US interests in the long-term, noting that Tehran has been able to expand its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan after the US invaded both countries and brought down their rulers.

"There is going to be a rise of Iran, no matter which way you cut it," Hillary Mann Leverett, a former advisor on the National Security Council in Washington, told AFP recently. "The question is: can the US work with Iran for the constructive peaceful rise of Iran in a region that works more together, economically, politically and in security terms for the next generation."

jar/sms (AFP, dpa)

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