AP: Britain will push other EU nations at a summit on Thursday to explore tougher sanctions against Iran as the Islamic republic continues to ignore demands to halt uranium enrichment activities that could develop material for nuclear weapons.
The Associated Press
By PAUL AMES
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — Britain will push other EU nations at a summit on Thursday to explore tougher sanctions against Iran as the Islamic republic continues to ignore demands to halt uranium enrichment activities that could develop material for nuclear weapons.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown assured President Bush in London on Monday that the European Union was hours away from announcing new sanctions against Iran's largest bank.
However, that didn't happen, and EU diplomats said the leaders were unlikely to adopt the new measures at a summit Thursday and Friday because at least several more days of technical work are needed to ensure a proposal to freeze assets of Iran's Bank Melli complies with U.N. and European rules.
Bank Melli is Iran's largest bank.
Brown also told Bush that the bloc will start the process of new sanctions targeting Iran's oil and gas exports, but EU officials said those talks were still at a very early stage and that the bloc is months away from making any decisions.
Some EU diplomats said Brown jumped the gun, and the Conservative opposition in London accused him of committing a blunder.
"It takes the conduct of our nation's affairs to a whole new level of blundering incompetence," William Hague, the Conservative foreign affairs chief, told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
However, EU officials say there is a growing feeling among EU leaders that tougher sanctions are needed, given the lack of progress international efforts to persuade Iran to drop its enrichment program by offering economic incentives.
Iran is still mulling a package presented by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on a visit to Tehran last weekend, but the government repeatedly has said it will not halt enrichment.
EU diplomats said the bloc would likely announce the freezing of assets of the Bank Melli, perhaps as early as next week. They said there was a political agreement on the move, but legal and technical issues still need to be resolved.
Sanctions against the oil and gas industry could be more tricky, not least because such a move could push up fuel prices already hitting record highs worldwide.
The EU is Iran's biggest trading partner, with two-way trade totaling euro25 billion ($39 billion) in 2006. Iran supplies nearly 4 percent of EU energy imports, according to latest figures from the bloc's trade department, and some fear new sanctions could further push up oil and gas prices.
Iran insists its enrichment activities are for peaceful purposes to develop nuclear power, not a bomb.
However, given U.S. concerns that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon, some in Europe are coming around to the idea that sanctions to force Iran into a compromise could be the only alternative to U.S. military action.