White House presses Senate to delay new Iran sanctions

In this Oct 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. The White House hosted a meeting of aides to Senate committee leaders
In this Oct 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. The White House hosted a meeting of aides to Senate committee leaders on Thursday seeking to persuade lawmakers to hold off on a package of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, a senior Senate aide said. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

(REUTERS) - The White House hosted a meeting of aides to Senate committee leaders on Thursday seeking to persuade lawmakers to hold off on a package of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, a senior Senate aide said.

The White House will press for another delay on a sanctions bill that had been expected to come to a vote in the Senate Banking Committee last month but was held back after appeals from President Barack Obama's administration to let negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme get under way.

The aide said Republicans would resist further delay, but that the decision was in the hands of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, the committee's chairman, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Democrat.

A Johnson spokesman confirmed that a meeting on Iran took place at the White House but gave no further details. A Reid spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

While Congress has sought harsher sanctions on Iran, the administration wants more time to give negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme a chance. The negotiations that include six world powers are due to resume November 7-8 in Geneva.

Washington and its allies believe Teheran is developing the ability to make a nuclear weapon, but Teheran says the programme is for generating power and medical devices.

Sanctions imposed in 2011 by Washington and the EU have combined to slash Iran's oil exports by more than 1 million barrels per day, depriving Teheran of billions of dollars worth of sales per month and helping to drive up inflation and unemployment.

European governments took steps on Thursday to re-impose sanctions on Iran's main cargo shipping line which, if finalised, could complicate the push to settle the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme.

CASE FOR SANCTIONS

United States (US) senators have begun debating behind closed doors a new sanctions bill that could seek further cuts in Iran's oil exports and limit the ability of the administration to issue waivers to the sanctions.

The House overwhelmingly approved new sanctions in July that seek to cut exports to almost nothing in a year.

The White House confirmed there was a meeting with Senate aides on Thursday, but a spokeswoman would not comment on whether the administration would push for further delay in the sanctions.

"Congress has been an important partner in our efforts thus far. We will continue our close consultation, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy as we move forward," said Ms Caitlin Hayden, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

"Today's meeting is part of these ongoing consultations, following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran," she said, referring to the six powers - the US, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia.

A Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations said now is not the time to delay fresh sanctions. "I don't understand why you would weaken the sanctions now, or you would not strengthen the sanctions," Mr Elliot Abrams, an aide on the Middle East to former President George W. Bush, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Thursday. "The sanctions are what brought the Iranians to the table."

Ms Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of State for political affairs who participated in this month's talks in Geneva, discussed Iran with members of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in a classified briefing at the Capitol on Wednesday.

The committee's top Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel, attended the meeting at the Capitol but declined comment on the classified nature of the talks. A spokesman said he supports efforts to engage with Iran but believes Teheran agreed to negotiate because of the sanctions passed by Congress.

"Teheran must know that Congress will not acquiesce to lifting sanctions until they completely and verifiably dismantle their nuclear programme," said Mr Daniel Harsha, a spokesman for the House committee's Democrats.

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