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Senate panel will move ahead on new Iran sanctions

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Banking Committee will move ahead with a package of tough new sanctions on Iran after the negotiating session over its nuclear program ends in Geneva on Friday, the committee's chairman said on Thursday.

Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told him to go ahead with the mark-up - or consideration - of the bill, a step toward bringing it to the full Senate for a vote.

"We'll wait until the Geneva meeting is over with, but I talked to Harry Reid about it yesterday and he wants to mark up," Johnson told Reuters outside the Senate chamber.

He said the date of the mark-up, during which senators present amendments to the legislation and vote whether to send it to the full Senate, had not been determined as of Thursday.

A number of lawmakers said they were open to easing sanctions, but only if Tehran makes significant, verifiable concessions like suspending enrichment and allowing more invasive inspections.

"I think Iran has in its power to decide whether or not it faces any more sanctions or whether or not it gets any relief from existing sanctions," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who also is a member of the banking committee, told Reuters.

But otherwise, he said he felt the sanctions should go ahead. "I just don't understand a negotiating posture that suggests that we should stop pursuing a course of action that at least brought Iran to the table while they continue to enrich," he said.

President Barack Obama's administration has been pushing Congress to hold off on more sanctions against Iran to let the delicate diplomatic talks over Tehran's nuclear program unfold.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Geneva on Thursday that it and six world powers were making progress in the talks, although the discussions were "tough."

And in Washington on Thursday, a White House spokesman said the powers negotiating with Iran would consider a limited pullback of sanctions in exchange for clear evidence that Tehran is taking steps to stop its nuclear program from advancing.

But Congress tends to take a harder line on Iran than the administration. Many lawmakers, including several of Obama's fellow Democrats, believe that tough sanctions brought Tehran to the negotiating table and insist that more are needed to discourage it from developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes.

Sanctions imposed last year by Washington and the European Union have combined to slash Iran's oil exports by roughly 1 million barrels a day, depriving Tehran of billions of dollars of income and driving up inflation and unemployment.

The Republican-led House of Representatives passed its version of a stiffer sanctions bill in July. But the Senate, where Democrats control a majority of the seats, put off moving ahead with its bill after the administration asked for more time to pursue the talks.

The House bill among other things seeks to slash Iran's oil exports to nearly zero. The Senate bill has been widely expected to be less stringent.

The timing issue became more complicated after a handful of senators, including Republican Mark Kirk, a banking panel member, said they might go ahead with a sanctions package even if the banking committee held off.

Kirk and a few other Republicans said they were considering introducing a stiffer package of Iran sanctions as an amendment to a defense authorization bill that is expected to be debated in the Senate during the week of November 18.

Menendez said he thought debating the stand-alone sanctions bill was a better course of action. "It will be more thought out and more reasoned and balanced," he said.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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