Reuters: European Union states agreed on Monday to impose new sanctions against Iran, including an asset freeze on its biggest bank, over its refusal to meet demands to curb its nuclear program.
By Mark John
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union states agreed on Monday to impose new sanctions against Iran, including an asset freeze on its biggest bank, over its refusal to meet demands to curb its nuclear program.
However the EU said the door remained open to possible talks over an international package of incentives for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment delivered to Tehran earlier this month by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The new sanctions, coordinated with the United States at a summit earlier this month, will target businesses and individuals that the West alleges are linked to Iranian nuclear and ballistic programs, an EU official said.
"The individuals will be banned from entering the EU and the entities will banned from operating in the EU," said the official, who wanted to remain anonymous, after EU ministers rubber-stamped the widely flagged measures at a meeting in Luxembourg.
The EU is due to publish the names of those affected on Tuesday but the official said Bank Melli would face an asset freeze under the moves, while the visa bans would target "very senior experts" inside Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs.
The official stressed the sanctions were based on measures agreed by the U.N. Security Council and that the six powers — the five permanent members of the Council plus Germany — still sought an answer from Iran to their incentives offer.
CARROT AND STICK
"We are continuing with the double-track," the official said of the carrot-and-stick policy that has until now not induced Iran to curb a nuclear program, suspected by the West of being a cover for making an atom bomb.
The United States and the EU agreed this month they were ready to take additional steps aimed at ensuring Iranian banks could not back proliferation and terrorism.
Iran insists its nuclear work is a peaceful program, but the long-running dispute has sparked fears of military confrontation and helped push up oil prices to record highs.
Iran's oil minister has put its windfall crude export earnings at $6 billion per month and acting economy minister Hossein Samsami said at the weekend existing sanctions were not having a major impact on the country's economy.
Iranian weekly Shahrvand-e Emrooz reported this month that Iran had withdrawn $75 billion from Europe to prevent the assets from being blocked, but Samsami played down such reports and insisted the situation was "as yet not serious".
The new incentives offer is based on is an updated version of one rejected by Iran in 2006 and includes help in developing a civilian nuclear program and trade benefits.
Diplomats said on Friday major powers had offered Iran preliminary talks on its nuclear program, on condition it limit enrichment to current levels for six weeks in exchange for a freeze on moves towards harsher sanctions.
Earlier, Iran said it was encouraged by common points between the offer and separate proposals it has put forward to defuse the dispute, but again dismissed any suggestion of suspending uranium enrichment.
The United States says it is focusing on diplomatic pressure to thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions but has not ruled out military action as a last resort.
Friday's New York Times quoted U.S. officials as saying Israel, which is believed to have nuclear weapons of its own, had carried out a large military exercise, apparently as a rehearsal for a potential bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran's defense minister was quoted on Sunday as saying his country would give a "devastating" response to any attack and the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, has warned a strike on Iran would turn the Middle East into a fireball.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Smith; editing by David Brunnstrom and Richard Balmforth)