Last updated: November 20, 2013 3:14 am

Obama in plea to postpone new Iran sanctions

Barack Obama made a personal appeal to leading senators on Tuesday to postpone new sanctions on Iran.

The move came on the eve of crucial nuclear talks. However, the US president still faces fierce opposition from many Republicans in Congress.

The US administration had initially appeared to win some political breathing space over its nuclear negotiations after a leading Republican senator left a meeting with Mr Obama and said that no new sanctions were likely until at least next month.

However, by the evening a group of six Republican senators not at the meeting had introduced a new sanctions measure which accused the administration of being “deeply naive” in the way it was negotiating with Iran and called for Tehran to halt all enrichment of uranium.

The amendment to the annual Pentagon funding bill introduced on Tuesday evening was authored by Senator Mark Kirk and was also backed by Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate.

Capping another day of fierce lobbying in Washington over the Iran talks and new disagreements between the US and Israel, the amendment could set up a political confrontation between the White House and its Iran critics in Congress if it is put up for debate.

The Obama administration has warned that new sanctions on Iran could scupper the ongoing talks with the country over its nuclear programme, which many western governments believe is designed to eventually produce a nuclear weapon.

The new amendment was introduced just hours before diplomats from the US and six other world powers meet senior Iranian officials in Geneva to discuss an interim agreement, which would freeze important parts of Iran’s nuclear programme in return for modest sanctions relief, in order to buy around six months to try to negotiate a long-term deal.

Iran will be negotiating with the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany.

US officials have said that an agreement is “close”, but 10 days ago talks broke up without a deal despite high expectations.

In his effort to forestall new congressional action against Iran, Mr Obama met 10 leading senators from both parties on Tuesday. Although some of the senators said they disagreed with the administration’s approach, the initial response appeared to win some respite for Mr Obama.

Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the foreign affairs committee who has been a big critic of the negotiations, said after the meeting that the Senate would not pick up a new sanctions bill that has already passed the House of Representatives until after the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of this month at the earliest.

A Senate aide added that given the short calendar in December because of the Christmas holidays, little movement was expected before January.

Mr Corker also said that no Iran sanctions amendments were likely to be attached to a forthcoming Pentagon funding bill, which had been mooted by some senators as another route for new punitive measures against Iran.

John McCain, the Arizona Republican and another regular critic of Mr Obama’s foreign policy, also said he did not expect new sanctions immediately.

“You always have to listen to the president of the United States when he asks you to do something,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Of course we want to seriously consider doing what he wanted, especially in the midst of some serious negotiations.”

However, Mr Kirk’s amendment threatens new restrictions on Iran’s ability to access overseas funds and to acquire precious metals if it does not halt all uranium enrichment – which is also one of the central demands of the Israeli government.

“This proposal will give our diplomats the increased leverage they need to get a good deal at the negotiating table – a deal that peacefully brings Iran into full compliance with its international obligations,” said Mr Kirk.

This proposal will give our diplomats the increased leverage they need to get a good deal at the negotiating table

- Senator Mark Kirk

Under the interim deal being discussed in Geneva, Iran would be allowed to continue enriching uranium at a lower level while a longer-term solution to the impasse is being discussed.

Responding to Israeli criticisms that the proposed agreement would provide a substantial economic boost to Iran, Mr Obama said on Tuesday that any deal would “open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief”. Iran would still be “losing money . . . relative to its oil sales in 2011”, because of continued energy and banking sanctions.

Mr Obama said the second stage of negotiations after an interim agreement would give the world powers time to “test” whether Iran was really interested in a diplomatic solution to the stand-off. “We are purchasing ourselves some time to see how serious the Iranian regime might be,” he said.

In a positive sign for the talks this week, Iran’s foreign minister appeared to show flexibility over one issue that had been a sticking point.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying that it was not a “necessity” that any agreement recognise an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium, which has been a core Iranian demand. Mr Zarif said that “the right to enrichment” was still not negotiable, but that it was already established in a UN treaty.

Ahead of the talks, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani has spoken on the phone to the leaders of China, Russia and the UK. His conversation with British prime minister David Cameron was the first in a decade between the two countries’ leaders.

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