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New Iran sanctions not likely while nuclear talks still in progress, key senators say

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Lawmakers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unlikely to impose new economic sanctions on Iran while sensitive nuclear talks are underway, removing a potential obstacle to a diplomatic settlement that U.S. officials say could come within days.

The decision to delay action on new sanctions came as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed widespread approval for a deal with Iran, even if that deal means lifting some of the economic restrictions that have helped force Iran to the negotiating table.

A bipartisan group of senators emerged from a two-hour White House meeting saying there would likely be no vote this week on proposed new sanctions targeting Iran’s oil industry. Still, some lawmakers continue to push to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, despite warnings that such a move could prompt the country’s representatives to abandon international negotiations scheduled to resume Wednesday in Geneva.

“People are concerned that we’re giving up some leverage,” Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the White House meeting.

The agreement to delay a sanctions vote came as diplomats from the United States, Iran and five other countries arrived in Geneva for the start of potentially decisive negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomats — after coming close to a deal two weeks ago — are seeking to finalize what U.S. officials describe as a first step in a comprehensive agreement on permanent limits to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The planned initial stage would require Iran to freeze key parts of its nuclear program in return for modest, temporary relief from some of the economic sanctions that have decimated the country’s economy over the past two years. But the plan has drawn harsh criticism from Israel as well as many prominent members of Congress who oppose any relief from sanctions without more sweeping concessions from Iran.

The Obama administration has defended the proposed phased approach as a necessary confidence-building step leading to a broader deal. White House officials say the bulk of the sanctions against Iran would remain in place until Iran agreed to limits that would essentially prevent it from ever using its nuclear facilities to build atomic bombs.

Iranian officials have insisted their nuclear program is solely for peaceful, energy-producing purposes.

“The president made clear that achieving a peaceful resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is profoundly in America’s national security interests,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “The president is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and firmly believes that it would be preferable to do so peacefully.”

The new poll released Tuesday showed that Americans supported a negotiated settlement with Iran by a ratio of 2 to 1. Poll respondents were asked if they supported a deal that would lift some economic sanctions “in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.”

Sixty-four percent of the respondents approved of the theoretic deal, including sizable majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

The same poll, however, suggested that most Americans are skeptical that a deal can be concluded.

The White House meeting on Tuesday was part of an intense lobbying effort by President Obama to stall congressional efforts on new sanctions while negotiations are at a critical phase. Administration officials have argued that such actions — in addition to antagonizing Iran — risk angering U.S. allies who have sought in good faith to reach an agreement on the first significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in a decade.

Attending the White House meeting in addition to Corker were Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Secretary of State John F. Kerry and White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice also attended the meeting.

Corker said Kerry and the other officials at the meeting were “very explicit about what they think they may be able to negotiate” when talks resume.

“There is a much greater understanding of what is on the table,” he said, without providing details.

Corker said he expected that some senators at the meeting were satisfied and some were “very unsatisfied.”

After the meeting, a group of senior senators released a letter voicing support for the continued talks, but urging the administration to reconsider its diplomatic strategy.

The senators said that the current negotiations would require the United States “to make significant concessions before we see Iran demonstrably commit to moving away from developing a nuclear weapons capability.”

“If we are reducing sanctions, Iran should be reducing its nuclear capabilities,” the senators wrote.

Separately, a group of six Republican senators introduced an amendment to a defense bill that would, if approved, increase sanctions on Iran. It appeared unlikely that the amendment would come up for a vote until after the Thanksgiving recess at the earliest, congressional officials said.

Two senators, McCain and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), also called on the Senate Banking Committee to move ahead with sanctions legislation “as soon as possible.”

Western governments and Iranian officials alike have expressed optimism in recent days that the Geneva talks could yield at least the outlines of a deal, while also cautioning that significant obstacles remain. Iran’s chief negotiator at the talks, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in a videotaped message that the country’s newly elected leadership had set a course for “ending an unnecessary crisis and opening new horizons.” But he added that Iranians would insist on being treated respectfully by the West.

“To seize this unique opportunity, we need to accept equal footing and choose a path based on mutual respect and recognition of the dignity of all peoples,” he said, speaking in English.

Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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