US Congress eases pressure for new Iran sanctions

US President Barack Obama won some breathing room Tuesday for his nuclear dialogue with Iran, as legislation calling for strict new sanctions on Tehran lost some crucial support in Congress.

Senator Robert Menendez announced that he and some fellow Democrats had assured Obama they would not vote in support of new sanctions prior to a negotiations target date of March 24.

Under the interim agreement reached in November, representatives of the so-called P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) and Tehran gave themselves three months to reach a political agreement -- with a final deal due before July 1.

"Many of my Democratic colleagues and I sent a letter to the president telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez bill on the Senate floor until after March 24, and only if there's no political framework agreement," Menendez said, referring to legislation he authored with Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

"Because, as the letter states, we remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability in accordance with the timeline."

The announcement marks an abrupt reversal for Menendez, who had defied the White House by pressing for swift passage of his bill, which would impose staggered sanctions against Iran in case negotiations on a final agreement fail.

Without Democratic support, the Republican Senate majority would be unable to pass the sanctions measure.

The Menendez-Kirk bill, which has yet to be formally introduced and is the subject of a fierce battle between Congress and the White House, would gradually strengthen US sanctions against Iran over a six-month period starting in July, to put pressure on the Iranian leadership.

The Obama administration says such a move by Congress in the midst of sensitive and historic talks could derail the diplomatic effort.