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US Nuclear Negotiator Calls for Pause in Iran Sanctions

The top U.S. nuclear negotiator is calling for a pause in U.S. congressional efforts to impose sanctions on Iran, weeks after accusing Iran of being deceptive about its nuclear program.

In an exclusive interview Friday with VOA's Persian service, U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said any push for additional U.S. sanctions should be delayed to see if nuclear talks can "gain traction."

She said Obama administration officials have been speaking with Senate and House lawmakers about delaying the sanctions.

"Congress has its prerogatives. We do not get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. I think they have been very effective partners as we have tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be."

Congress has been seeking harsher sanctions on Iran over its questionable nuclear program. Iran says its program has peaceful aims. But the West and Israel believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons capability.

Iran has also been hit with several rounds of U.N. sanctions for refusing to end its uranium enrichment program. Low-enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear power plants, but highly-enriched uranium is an integral part of a nuclear bomb.

U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed in 2011 have slashed Iran's oil exports by more than one million barrels per day.

The most substantive talks in years between Iran and Western powers began this month. But Sherman ignited a firestorm in Iran by recently saying the U.S. had to be cautious about cutting a nuclear deal with Iran because recent experience with the Iranians on their atomic program shows that "deception is part of the DNA."

In Friday's interview with VOA, Sherman said the remarks, made in testimony to a Senate committee on October 3, caused concern among the Iranian people and Iranian-Americans.

"And I think that those words spoke to some deep mistrust that President Obama discussed, and that we have to really work to get over that mistrust. I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so. It will take time. As he said, when you have decades of mistrust that go back to 1979 in the Iranian revolution. It is going to take a little time to get past that. We both need to work at it."

Sherman's DNA comment angered Iranian hardliners and media outlets.

In a front page editorial, a newspaper close to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Iran to boycott nuclear talks with the West if Sherman is present. A cartoon published by Iran's state-run Fars news agency depicts Sherman as a broom-riding witch.

But in her interview with VOA, Sherman gave no indication she will remove herself from the talks.

Middle East analyst Jim Phillips, of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told VOA Sherman was on target with her DNA comment.

"She spoke the truth when she said deception is part of their genes. It is part of the genes of this government that continues to lie, not only to the world, but also to lie to its own people."

Phillips also said Sherman's comment gave Iranian hardliners a chance to "get in a dig" at President Hassan Rouhani and to stir up anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people.

"That was kind of an opportunity for hardliners back in Tehran not only to get in a dig at Rouhani, who they see as too soft in dealing with the West, but also to whip anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people."

Until this month's meetings in Geneva, talks on Iran's atomic program had appeared to make little progress.

But there have been signs of a thaw since the election of the relativly moderate Mr. Rouhani. He has promised to lead a diplomatic effort to get economic sanctions against Iran eased.

The Geneva talks between Iran and the P5+1 - five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany - ended with upbeat assessments from both sides.

Also, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Rouhani engaged in a short phone conversation on September 20, the first direct contact between the top leadership of the two countries in more than three decades.

But Phillips urged the P5+1 not to ease up on sanctions, saying they have brought Iran to the table for the first time "in a semi-serious way."

"If the U.S. or the other members of the Security Council ease up on Iran, then I think it will go back to its old policy of cheat and retreat, and there will not be a diplomatic solution to this problem."

The Geneva talks were the first since Mr. Rouhani was elected. More negotiations among the parties are set for November 7.

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