Kerry urging Congress to pause on Iran sanctions amid talks

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry is pressing lawmakers to give diplomacy a chance, parrying attacks from Congress over talks that broke up last week without a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Kerry met behind closed doors Wednesday with members of the Senate Banking Committee at the Capitol, telling reporters beforehand that he would ask them to delay efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran for at least "a few weeks."

"The risk is that if Congress were to unilaterally move to raise sanctions, it could break faith with those negotiations and actually stop them and break them apart," Kerry said. "What we're asking everybody to do is calm down, look hard at what can be achieved or what the realities are."

Lawmakers from both parties in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have criticized negotiations in Geneva last week toward a first-step agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear program that would ease some existing sanctions without first ensuring an end to Iran's uranium enrichment.

Vice President Joe Biden and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman were planning to brief Senate Democratic leaders later Wednesday, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing private meetings.

The talks in Geneva broke up last weekend without an initial agreement and are scheduled to resume Nov. 20. Iran is negotiating with a group known as the P5+1, made up of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany.

"The Iranian regime hasn't paused its nuclear program — why should we pause our sanctions efforts, as the administration is pressuring Congress to do?" Representative Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing on Iran Wednesday.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House panel, said that "we must make crystal clear to Tehran that even tougher sanctions are coming down the pike if the regime is unwilling to take concrete and verifiable steps to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a leading advocate for heightened sanctions and a member of the banking panel, said he will await the briefing by Kerry before deciding on a course of action.

Even if Congress acts, legislation would take "anywhere between six months and a year" to implement, Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said. "They always take time to kick into effect."

New sanctions legislation should come from the banking panel, Menendez told reporters. The senator had said previously that he might attempt to attach sanctions language to the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill the chamber is preparing to debate.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that sanctions don't belong on the defense bill crafted by his panel and that he backs the administration's request to hold off.

"I support maintaining tight sanctions against Iran," Levin told reporters. "I don't support increasing them at this time, because I think it could interfere with the negotiations," Levin told reporters at the Capitol. "If negotiations don't succeed, or don't succeed in a way that is acceptable, we can always add additional sanctions at that time."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House was promoting a "bad deal" for the U.S.

"We ought to be actually ratcheting up the sanctions against Iran," McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said during a news conference at the Capitol. "I'd be surprised if we do not have a debate on enhanced Iran sanctions on the defense authorization bill."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the banking panel, said he wants to hear what Kerry has to say about the Geneva negotiations before deciding how to proceed.

"We're just worried that they're dealing away our leverage," Corker said in an interview. "What we're far more concerned about in our office is the administration dealing away the sanctions that we now have in place."

Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. has support for its proposal to curb Iran's nuclear program from the other countries negotiating with Iran.

If new sanctions were imposed by Congress now, allies "would think we're dealing in bad faith and they would bolt," Kerry said. "Then the sanctions do fall apart."

The agreement that was considered during talks in Geneva would have offered Iran a temporary easing of existing sanctions on petrochemicals, gold and auto trade and some access to frozen assets, according to diplomats who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to comment.

Netanyahu, who has urged American Jews to work to block the deal under consideration in Geneva, said yesterday that Iran stands to gain billions of dollars if sanctions are eased in the proposal being discussed in Geneva.

"It gives Iran a tremendous break, a hole — not a tiny hole, but a big hole — in sanctions," Netanyahu said at the Bloomberg Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. and Israel say uranium enrichment in Iran and construction of a reactor capable of producing plutonium would help the Islamic Republic develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful medical and energy uses.

_ With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Caitlin Webber, Timothy R. Homan, James Rowley and Bob Drummond in Washington, Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv and Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem.