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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups and human rights violations under legislation approved by a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday.

By an 18-3 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee paved the way for full Senate consideration, despite objections from former Secretary of State John Kerry and others who served in Democratic President Barack Obama's administration that it might threaten the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran.

"We know that this in no way touches the nuclear deal," Senator Bob Corker, the committee's Republican chairman, told reporters.

If approved by the Senate, the bill would also have to pass the House of Representatives before being sent to President Donald Trump for it to be signed into law.

Republicans and Democrats have been clamouring for a response to Iran's missile programme and other activities. The bill the committee passed on Thursday is co-sponsored by 48 of the 100 senators.

Some members had also sought to link the Iran bill with an effort to impose new sanctions on Russia, but the panel reached an agreement to delay the Russia measures.

The measure would impose mandatory sanctions on anyone involved with Iran's ballistic missile programme, and those who do business with them. It would also apply sanctions to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran's most powerful security force, which also is a major force in its economy.

The Trump administration has been considering whether to formally designate the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

The bill seeks to tighten an international arms embargo on Tehran by requiring Trump to block the property of any person or entity involved in activities related to the supply, sale or transfer of prohibited weapons to or from Iran.

The committee passed it on a day when the semi-official Fars news agency quoted a senior commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard saying that Iran has built a third underground ballistic missile production factory and will keep developing its missile programme.

The bill was introduced in March, but the Foreign Relations Committee waited to take it up until after Iran's election on Friday, when President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote.

Rouhani broke the taboo of holding direct talks with the United States and reached the deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme in return for relief from economic sanctions.

Trump, who succeeded Obama on Jan. 20, has criticized the nuclear deal, which was opposed by every Republican in Congress and several Democrats. But he has so far not moved to tear up the agreement.

Instead, his administration has said it would police Iran's compliance with the bill and review it, with an eye towards possibly modifying it to make it stronger.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday he would increase sanctions pressure on Iran, Syria and North Korea, and said the department was reviewing licenses for Boeing Co and Airbus to sell aircraft to Iran.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Grant McCool and Howard Goller)

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