UPDATE 2-White House says criticism of Iran nuclear deal premature

Fri Nov 8, 2013 4:03pm EST

(Adds comment from Cantor and American Jewish groups; previous ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE)

By Mark Felsenthal and Timothy Gardner

NEW ORLEANS/WASHINGTON Nov 8 (Reuters) - The White House said on Friday that Israeli and Saudi criticism of a deal taking shape with Iran to curb its nuclear program was premature, as unease about the plan grew among U.S. lawmakers and Middle Eastern allies.

"There is no deal, but there is an opportunity here for a possible diplomatic solution, and that is exactly what the president is pursuing," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama on Air Force One to New Orleans.

"So any critique of the deal is premature," Earnest said.

Tehran, engaged in a critical round of talks in Geneva with the United States and five other world powers, is seeking relief from financial sanctions imposed by America and the European Union that have slashed its oil sales, severely hurting its economy.

Obama said on Thursday that he was open to "modest relief" on sanctions if Iran halts advancements on its nuclear program as talks on a permanent deal continue.

Asked about sharp criticism of the proposals by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Earnest said the United States and close ally Israel were "in complete agreement about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Washington and its allies believe Tehran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for seeking the ability to make a weapon, a charge Iran denies.

Netanyahu warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts that Iran would be getting "the deal of the century" if they carried out proposals to grant Tehran limited, temporary sanctions relief in exchange for a partial suspension of, and pledge not to expand, its nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia also has complained bitterly about the U.S. thaw in relations with Shi'ite Muslim Iran, the main regional rival of the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

PUSH FOR FURTHER SANCTIONS

U.S. lawmakers have threatened to slap new sanctions on Iran even as the talks in Geneva have appeared to progress, despite White House appeals to hold off while it tests the diplomatic waters.

Kerry made an unscheduled trip to Geneva to try to help bridge what he said were "important gaps" in the negotiations, which appeared likely to be extended into Saturday.

The Senate banking committee may introduce a bill with new sanctions on Iran's oil sales after similar legislation was passed by the House of Representatives in July. And some Republicans are considering introducing a package of tighter Iran sanctions as an amendment to a defense authorization bill that is expected to be debated next month.

"We need to see the details, but if there really is a deal this bad, lawmakers are going to have to explore their options," a senior aide to a senator said on Friday. Pro-Israel sentiment runs high on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Eric Cantor, majority leader in the Republican-controlled House, said the emerging deal in Geneva would fall short if it failed to completely halt Iran's nuclear program.

"We should not race to accept a bad deal, but should keep up the pressure until the Iranians are willing to make significant concessions," he said.

Criticism also has begun bubbling up from some leading pro-Israel groups in Washington. White House officials met some of the more hawkish American Jewish leaders last week but failed to win broad support for a pause in further sanctions against Iran.

"Any deal that breathes life back into Iran's economy in return for token and superficial moves that put Tehran no further from nuclear breakout ... appears to be a horrific strategic error," said Josh Block, chief executive officer of The Israel Project, a non-partisan, pro-Israel organization.

J Street, a more liberal lobbying group, took a different tack, urging supporters on its website to "tell your senators: don't undermine Iran negotiations with new sanctions."

There was no immediate comment on the Geneva talks from the largest and most influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. (Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jim Loney)

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