WASHINGTON – A senior U.S. diplomat urged Congress to delay tough new Iran sanctions legislation until after upcoming negotiations on Iran's nuclear program for fear of undermining the talks.
Wendy Sherman, the State Department's third-ranking official, told senators Thursday morning she would prefer a delay so that she could tell Iranian negotiators at the mid-October meeting in Geneva that "this is your chance" to propose an acceptable deal to curb Iran's disputed nuclear program.
"We do believe it would be helpful for you to at least allow this meeting to happen on the 15th and 16th of October before moving forward to consider these new sanctions," Sherman, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
She said the administration doesn't necessarily object to new sanctions, and would be willing to work with Congress after the meeting to determine what kind of sanctions might build additional pressure on Iran. She stopped short of endorsing the pending legislation.
The negotiators will meet in Geneva for another attempt at a deal following weeks of conciliatory overtures from each side. President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone Friday about the new diplomatic effort after years of stalemate.
The administration has been wary about Congress' desire to keep hitting Iran's economy with new sanctions, fearing too much pressure could threaten the international coalition that is now cooperating with sanctions.
But administration officials have been happy to use the threat of sanctions to try to build pressure on Iran to agree to a nuclear deal, provided it doesn't go too far and make Tehran unwilling to deal.
Sherman said administration officials will be happy after the meeting to "go back and look at what pressure needs to be added."
A House bill that was passed in July and is now pending in the Senate is the toughest sanctions bill ever passed by the House. It would cut Iran's oil exports, which provide 80% of government revenue, almost to zero.
Asked about the administration's negotiating strategy, Sherman said officials wouldn't lift major sanctions "any time soon" but might offer the Iranians other short-term relief if it took steps to delay its nuclear program.
"The fundamental large sanctions that we have in place should not disappear anytime soon, unless all of our concerns are addressed by the Iranians," she said.
Sherman said officials were looking for steps that the Iranians could take to "build confidence" and provide time for negotiations, without allowing Iran an opportunity to keep pushing ahead with the program.
She said of the Iranians: "we know that deception is part of the DNA."