Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

European Union Escalates Economic Sanctions against Iran

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

European Union Escalates Economic Sanctions against Iran

Article excerpt

BRUSSELS -- Europe banned the import of Iranian oil 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.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the EU effort "unprecedented," and said it showed European governments' resolve to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

But the decision also includes broad loopholes -- including a six- month delay before it takes 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.

Iran has the benefit of its contracts with Asian nations -- in particular, about 60 percent of Iran's 2.2 million barrels a day of exports have been locked into contracts with China, Japan and South Korea. Turkey accounts for an additional 7 percent. Traditionally, European customers have accounted for less than 20 percent of Iranian exports.

Nevertheless, powerful figures in Iran immediately threatened retaliation, news agencies in Tehran reported. Their defiance, including calls to close the Strait of Hormuz, underlined the high stakes in the West's confrontation with the Islamic government. The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow Persian Gulf exit through which one- fifth of world oil exports pass.

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.

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."

Iran had threatened earlier to close the strait, and the Obama administration has said the United States would see the action as a red line that it would not allow Iran to cross. Underlining the point, a U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln sailed through the strait Sunday into the Persian Gulf, accompanied by two European frigates, the British Navy's Argyll and the French Navy's La Motte-Picquet. …

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