The EU and US are set to toughen nuclear sanctions aiming to punish Iran while seeking to hold back Israel from a military strike, top officials said as the showdown enters a critical phase.
Western moves to pressure Iran have been made more urgent by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stern call for a “clear red line” against the Islamic state’s nuclear drive, diplomats said.
Netanyahu’s conversation with US President Barack Obama on Friday reassured some envoys that Israel and the US are more in tune over Iran, but they highlighted lingering uncertainty about if and when Israel could launch unilateral action.
The EU will be first to step up sanctions as part of the international campaign of pressure alongside increasingly frustrating efforts to negotiate a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.
“What we will do next is intensify sanctions,” a top Western official close to talks on the crisis said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
EU foreign ministers are to meet in Luxembourg on Oct. 15 to discuss the measures.
“They will include the financial area, definitely,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, he said that the measures have not yet been settled.
Iran’s economy has been severely hit, particularly by action against its oil industry.
Its rial currency fell 6 percent to a new low of about 28,600 to the US dollar on Saturday, according to exchange analysts. It has lost 60 percent of its value this year, while food prices have risen 50 percent.
The EU ordered a ban on Iranian oil purchases from July 1, but Britain, France and Germany are “united” in pressing for additional sanctions by the 27-nation bloc, the official said.
A second senior official said the US is also looking for “new areas” where sanctions could be applied or toughened.
The US Congress approved action in August targeting companies that work with Iran’s petroleum or natural gas sector, provides insurance to the National Iranian Oil Co, engages with uranium mining with Iran or sells oil tankers to the country.
“There are always ways to refine the measures already taken by the administration,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “The number of targets could be increased. The aim has got to be to hit the government, but not the people.”
Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly unnerved many. He said that Iran could have the necessary material to make a bomb by the middle of next year and called for “red line” to stop Iran enriching uranium to the required purity for a bomb.
Netanyahu said that his deadline for a decision on action was now after the Nov. 6 presidential election in the US. However, Israeli officials increasingly indicate their impatience with the sanctions path.
“Iran is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the sanctions, and there are growing protests against the ayatollahs, but these sanctions have not dissuaded the regime in power in Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said last week.
The first senior official said that Western nations “have said to Israel that we are not in favor, in these circumstances when we are pursuing sanctions and negotiations, of any attack on Iran.”
The US administration “wants to pursue diplomacy, so we are nervous of any suggestion of any attack,” the second official said.
The trio of European nations plus the US, Russia and China — the so-called E3+3 group — has sought to negotiate with Iran, which denies it seeks a bomb.
Ministers from the six nations met in New York on Thursday and again called on Iran to “urgently” show the proof that its intentions are peaceful.
Experts from the six are due to meet in London soon to “determine our negotiating position for any further meeting with the Iranians,” the first senior official said.
EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said she would be contacting Iran to determine whether more negotiations should be held.
Alongside the sanctions and talks, the US and Europe have also stepped up pressure on Iran over its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and militant groups in the region.
The US is pushing Gulf states to develop missile defense plans, amid what they see as a rising threat from Iran, US officials said.