By Patricia Zengerle and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite opposition from the Obama administration, 26 U.S. senators introduced legislation on Thursday to impose new sanctions on Iran if the country breaks an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program.
It will be weeks at the earliest before the bill comes to a vote in the 100-member Senate, if it gets that far, given staunch opposition by President Barack Obama's administration and many of its supporters in Congress.
Democrats Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, along with 23 others, introduced the bill intended to choke off funding to Iran's nuclear program by cutting off its oil sales.
The 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans introduced the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" despite the Obama administration's insistence that passing such a measure would disrupt delicate negotiations between Tehran and world powers over the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also has said a new sanctions law would kill the interim agreement reached in Geneva on November 24 between Iran and the "P5+1" powers. In that agreement, Tehran agreed to limit uranium enrichment in return for an easing of international sanctions.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said after the bill was introduced that it would disrupt diplomacy, noting Washington could quickly impose more sanctions if negotiations fail.
A group of 10 powerful Democratic senators, all leaders of Senate committees, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressing opposition to any plans to introduce new sanctions, and asking the Nevada Democrat to consult them before any moves to allow a vote on such legislation.
Among the Democrats signing the letter were Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions legislation, and Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
The new bill would require reductions in Iran's petroleum production and apply new penalties to Iran's engineering, mining and construction industries if Iran violated the interim agreement or if negotiators failed to reach a final comprehensive agreement.
But it also gives the administration up to a year to pursue a diplomatic track resulting in the "complete and verifiable termination" of Iran's nuclear weapons program, the group of senators said as they announced the legislation.
"Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table," Menendez said in a statement.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Andre Grenon)