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White House tells Senate it opposes new Iran sanctions effort

White House press secretary Jay Carney answers questions about health insurance during a briefing at the White House in Washington November
White House press secretary Jay Carney answers questions about health insurance during a briefing at the White House in Washington November

By Patricia Zengerle and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Tuesday it opposes a fresh effort by some members of the U.S. Senate to impose new sanctions against Iran, even if the new restrictions would not take effect for months.

Some senators have been discussing the idea of imposing new sanctions on Iran that would kick in after six months or if Iran violated terms of an interim deal reached 10 days ago that attempts to contain its nuclear program.

"If we pass sanctions now, even with a deferred trigger which has been discussed, the Iranians, and likely our international partners, will see us as having negotiated in bad faith," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Administration officials have been pushing lawmakers not to move ahead with a sanctions package, saying doing so risked alienating Tehran and other countries engaged in the talks by making Washington seem to be acting in bad faith.

But many lawmakers are skeptical about the agreement reached in Geneva between negotiators for Iran and the so-called P5+1 - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - and insist Washington should increase the pressure on Tehran by adding to sanctions.

Wendy Sherman, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, who led the U.S. negotiating team in Geneva, was scheduled to hold a classified briefing on Iran for the entire House of Representatives on Wednesday morning.

Seeking to clarify some of the terms of the interim deal, a White House spokeswoman said the United States is prepared to accept some limited uranium enrichment by Iran in exchange for Tehran accepting strict verification procedures.

The United States does not recognize that Iran has a right to enrich, but "we are prepared to negotiate a strictly limited enrichment program in the end state," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman with the White House National Security Council.

This is because the Iranians have indicated for the first time that they are prepared to accept "rigorous monitoring and limits on level, scope, capacity and stockpiles," she said.

"If we can reach an understanding on all of these strict constraints, then we could have an arrangement that includes a very modest amount of enrichment that is tied to Iran's practical needs and that eliminates any near-term breakout capability," said Meehan.

The White House says a six-month window without new sanctions would allow negotiators to work on a comprehensive agreement to resolve the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.

QUESTIONS OVER SANCTIONS

But lawmakers believe it was tough sanctions pushed by Congress - not the White House - that brought Tehran to the table and see no reason not to spell out tough consequences if Iran does not comply with the interim deal.

"That way we're not negotiating in what-ifs," a Senate aide said.

Members of Congress, including many of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats, are generally more hawkish on Iran than the administration, and influential pro-Israel lobbyists have been pressing lawmakers to keep to a tough line.

Carney said there are concerns in the Obama administration that any new sanctions imposed by Congress would serve to undermine the core architecture of the sanctions program.

"Passing any new sanctions right now would undermine a peaceful resolution to this issue," he said.

Iran rejects allegations that it has sought covertly to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is enriching uranium solely for civilian purposes.

Congressional aides said it was too early to know whether an Iran sanctions package would be introduced as standalone legislation or as an amendment to a measure such as a defense authorization bill being considered by the Senate.

It also was not clear how far any legislation would go in the Senate, where Obama's fellow Democrats control a majority of votes.

(editing by Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman)

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