The EU readied to slap an embargo on Iran’s oil exports yesterday as the West ramped up pressure over the country’s suspect nuclear drive and urged Tehran to return to the negotiating table.
In the toughest measures yet to reduce Iran’s ability to fund a nuclear weapons program, EU foreign ministers meeting yesterday were to strengthen existing sanctions by banning imports of Iranian crude as well as targeting finance, petrochemicals and gold.
The measures come amid heightened concerns of confrontation following reports by the UN atomic agency — the International Atomic Energy Agency — that Tehran is inching ever closer to building a nuclear bomb.
The EU ministerial meeting comes hard on the heels of a Pentagon announcement that the US aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on Sunday passed through the Strait of Hormuz and is now in the Gulf, after Tehran threatened to close the strategic shipping route.
As the West’s reaction to Iran’s nuclear program strengthens, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said a British Royal Navy frigate and a French vessel had joined the carrier group to sail through the waterway
“Those who do not want to reinforce sanctions against a regime which is leading its country into disaster by seeking a nuclear weapon will bear responsibility for the risk of a military breakdown,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned on Friday.
Tehran’s foreign ministry dismissed the nuclear claims as, with spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast dubbing them “baseless and far from reality.”
The 27 EU foreign ministers nonetheless look set to agree new measures against Tehran after having already frozen the assets of 433 firms and 113 individuals, as well as restricting trade and investment in the oil and gas industries.
Also expected are bans on the sale of gold, diamonds and other precious metals to Iran and any delivery of newly minted coins and notes.
The ministers are also expected to expand sanctions against Syria in response to the continued repression against dissent there.
The EU imported some 600,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day in the first 10 months last year, making it a key market alongside India and China, which has refused to bow to pressure from Washington to dry up Iran’s oil revenues.
Greece’s dependency on Iranian oil, however, has been holding up a deal on the timing and conditions of the oil embargo.
The financially strapped nation, which relies on Iranian oil for more than a third of its oil imports, had concluded “good financial arrangements” with Iran including 60-day payment and no financial guarantees, EU sources said.
The bloc therefore has been seeking new suppliers able to match the easy conditions offered by Tehran to Greece.
Contacts are under way with Saudi Arabia and hopes are high that Libya can soon increase its production.
“Greece has agreed on a political level to stop its imports from Iran, the question is, who can compensate,” a diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
“It will be more difficult to find alternative suppliers because of the present financial situation of Greece,” the envoy said.
Iranian oil accounted for 34.2 percent of Greece’s total oil imports, 14.9 percent of Spain’s and 12.4 percent of Italy’s in the first nine months of last year, according to the latest EU statistics.
With the three nations all suffering financial difficulties, weeks of talks on an oil embargo stumbled on a deadline for importers to phase out existing contracts.