Europe bans Iranian oil imports in push to curtail nuclear program
Europe banned the import of Iranian oil on Monday and froze Europe-based assets of the Central Bank of Iran, intensifying an international campaign to choke Iran’s economy and force the radical Islamic government to dispel fears that it is working to develop nuclear weapons.
The ban, decided by foreign ministers of the 27-nation European Union, is a dramatic escalation of sanctions against Iran, joining with the United States to squeeze the oil earnings and financial transactions that the Tehran government depends on to sustain its citizens and finance its military. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, called the E.U. effort “unprecedented” and said it shows the resolve of European governments to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
But the decision also includes broad loopholes — including a six-month delay before it goes into effect — that soften its immediate practical impact. Existing contracts for Iranian oil can be respected until July 1, an announcement said, and the ban will come under review before May 1 to see if more flexibility is needed.
Countries such as Greece and Italy, suffering under crippling debt burdens, are likely to get more time before they have to break their financial ties to Iran, European diplomats said on condition of anonymity. Greece has been buying oil from Iran on credit and earns desperately needed money by refining crude for Balkan neighbors, they said. Italy has arranged for Iranian oil in payment for loans granted by Rome in the past.
Nevertheless, powerful figures in Iran immediately threatened retaliation, according to news agency reports from Tehran. Their defiance, including calls to close the Strait of Hormuz, underlined the high stakes in the West’s confrontation with the Islamic government.
Ali Fallahian, a member of the country’s influential Assembly of Experts and a former intelligence minister, told the semiofficial Fars News Agency that Iran should cut off sales to European nations immediately and, if the crisis grows, constrain maritime traffic through the strait. The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow exit from the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of the world’s oil exports pass.
Similarly, Mohammed Kossari, deputy chief of the parliament’s foreign affairs and national security committee, said: “If any disruption occurs regarding sale of Iranian oil, the Strait of Hormuz will definitely be closed.”
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