WASHINGTON - 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 on delaying the sanctions.
"Congress has its prerogatives," she said. "We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve 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 weapon capability.
Watch related video by VOA's Jeff Seldin
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 also slashed Iran's oil exports by more than one million barrels per day.
The most substantive talks in years between Tehran and Western powers began this month. But Sherman ignited a firestorm in Iran in early October when she said the U.S. had to be cautious about cutting a nuclear deal with Tehran because recent experience with the Iranians regarding 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.
"I think those words spoke to some deep mistrust that President [Barack] Obama discussed, and that we have to really work to get over that mistrust," she said. "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’s 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.
Still, in her interview with VOA, Sherman gave no indication she will remove herself from the talks.
The sanctions comment elicited a comment from a U.S. expert. Middle East analyst Jim Phillips, with the Heritage Foundation, said, "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."
Until this month's meetings in Geneva, talks on Iran's atomic program have appeared to make little progress in recent years.
But there have been signs of a thaw since the election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president in June. 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.
More talks among the parties are set for November 7. The Geneva talks were the first since Mr. Rouhani was elected.
Also, President Obama and Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani engaged in a short phone conversation on September 20, the first direct contact between the two countries' top leadership in more than three decades.
VOA's Mike Richman contributed to this report.