By Timothy Gardner and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House hosted a meeting of aides to Senate committee leaders on Thursday seeking to persuade lawmakers to hold off on a package of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, a senior Senate aide said.
The White House will press for another delay on a sanctions bill that had been expected to come to a vote in the Senate Banking Committee last month but was held back after appeals from President Barack Obama's administration to let negotiations on Iran's nuclear program get under way.
The aide said Republicans would resist further delay, but that the decision was in the hands of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, the committee's chairman, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Democrat.
A Johnson spokesman confirmed that a meeting on Iran took place at the White House but gave no further details. A Reid spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
While Congress has sought harsher sanctions on Iran, the administration wants more time to give negotiations over Iran's nuclear program a chance. The negotiations that include six world powers are due to resume November 7-8 in Geneva.
Washington and its allies believe Tehran is developing the ability to make a nuclear weapon, but Tehran says the program is for generating power and medical devices.
Sanctions imposed in 2011 by Washington and the EU have combined to slash Iran's oil exports by more than 1 million barrels per day, depriving Tehran of billions of dollars worth of sales per month and helping to drive up inflation and unemployment.
European governments took steps on Thursday to re-impose sanctions on Iran's main cargo shipping line which, if finalized, could complicate the push to settle the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
CASE FOR SANCTIONS
U.S. senators have begun debating behind closed doors a new sanctions bill that could seek further cuts in Iran's oil exports and limit the ability of the administration to issue waivers to the sanctions.
The House overwhelmingly approved new sanctions in July that seek to cut exports to almost nothing in a year.
The White House confirmed there was a meeting with Senate aides on Thursday, but a spokeswoman would not comment on whether the administration would push for further delay in the sanctions.
"Congress has been an important partner in our efforts thus far. We will continue our close consultation, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy as we move forward," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
"Today's meeting is part of these ongoing consultations, following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran," she said, referring to the six powers - the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia.
A Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations said now is not the time to delay fresh sanctions. "I don't understand why you would weaken the sanctions now, or you would not strengthen the sanctions," Elliot Abrams, an aide on the Middle East to former President George W. Bush, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Thursday. "The sanctions are what brought the Iranians to the table."
Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of State for political affairs who participated in this month's talks in Geneva, discussed Iran with members of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in a classified briefing at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The committee's top Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel, attended the meeting at the Capitol but declined comment on the classified nature of the talks. A spokesman said he supports efforts to engage with Iran but believes Tehran agreed to negotiate because of the sanctions passed by Congress.
"Tehran must know that Congress will not acquiesce to lifting sanctions until they completely and verifiably dismantle their nuclear program," said Daniel Harsha, a spokesman for the House committee's Democrats.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Vicki Allen and Cynthia Osterman)
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