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Kerry, Lew to brief U.S. senators on Iran nuclear talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary policy forum in Washington, October 24, 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary policy forum in Washington, October 24, 2013.

By Patricia Zengerle and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will hold a briefing on Thursday on the status of nuclear talks with Iran for members of a U.S. Senate committee considering tough new sanctions on Tehran, Senate aides said on Friday.

President Barack Obama's administration has been pushing the Senate Banking Committee to hold off on the new sanctions in order to give negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program a chance.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany will meet November 7-8 in Geneva, after a round of talks there earlier this month.

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.

The secret briefing for members of the banking panel with Kerry and Lew on the status of the talks with Iran will take place on Thursday at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT), according to a document obtained by Reuters.

The House of Representatives passed its version of a stiffer sanctions package in July by a 400-20 vote. The House bill seeks to slash Iran's oil exports by another 1 million barrels a day a year.

The Senate bill could reduce the ability of the Obama administration to offer waivers to the sanctions. But the measure has not come to a vote in the banking committee, a prelude to its consideration by the full Senate. The two versions would then be reconciled before being sent to Obama for his signature.

It appeared on Friday that banking committee leaders, who had already put off consideration of the package from September, agreed to at least some further delay.

Debate on amendments to the measure, known as the committee markup, had been expected as soon as early next week with a vote on Thursday, but Senate aides said they now did not expect the markup next week.

"An Iran sanctions markup has yet to be scheduled," a senior Senate aide said.

Sanctions imposed in 2011 by Washington and the European Union have combined to slash Iran's oil exports by more than 1 million barrels a day, depriving Tehran of billions of dollars worth of sales a month and helping to drive up inflation and unemployment.

The State Department, which has been briefing members of Congress on the status of the nuclear talks behind closed doors, said a pause before implementing new sanctions would be helpful.

"While we understand that Congress may consider new sanctions, we think this is a time for a pause, as we asked for in the past, to see if negotiations can gain traction," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing.

"We feel that any new proposals take into account the progress we're making diplomatically and leave open the flexibility ... there is always time for sanctions in the future as needed," she said.

The White House hosted a meeting of aides to Senate committee leaders on Thursday seeking to persuade lawmakers to hold off on the new sanctions package.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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