EU plans Iran oil embargo, IAEA team to visit

Europe and Japan moved ahead Tuesday in planning for punitive cuts in oil imports from Iran.

Updated: Jan 11, 2012, 16:04 PM IST

Tehran/Vienna: Europe and Japan moved ahead Tuesday in planning for punitive cuts in oil imports from Iran, where a senior official dismissed Western anger at news Tehran is enriching uranium deep underground as cover for ulterior motives.

A day after Iran confirmed the start of enrichment at a mountain bunker near the holy city of Qom - and sentenced an American to death for spying - the European Union brought forward a ministerial meeting that is likely to match new US measures to hamper Iran`s oil exports.

Russia expressed "regret and concern" at news that Iran had begun enrichment operations at the Fordow bunker and criticized Tehran for ignoring the international community`s demands for a response to its concerns.

An official at the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, said inspectors were expected to visit Iran soon to discuss their worries about possible military aspects to its nuclear program.

Japan took precautions in case it joins an international embargo on buying Iranian crude by asking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help it make up any shortfall.

Anxiety about the Iranian nuclear program helped push up oil prices, and Brent February crude rose 92 cents to USD 113.37 a barrel by 12:48 pm EST (1748 GMT).

Iran`s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency was scathing about reactions to Monday`s news, confirmed by the IAEA, that the Fordow site was enriching uranium - something Western powers say is aimed at developing nuclear arms, rather than the civilian uses that Iran asserts.

Noting that Fordow had been monitored by the IAEA for two years, Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iran`s ISNA news agency that Western reaction had "political purposes." The clerical leadership in Tehran, under pressure from sanctions that are disrupting the economy ahead of a parliamentary election, often accuses Western powers of seeking to overthrow it.

In Brussels, the European Union said it brought forward by a week, to January 23, a meeting at which foreign ministers from the bloc, which rivals China as Iran`s biggest customer for crude, are expected to confirm an embargo on oil purchases.

The 27 EU governments are still debating how quickly some of their ailing and oil-dependent economies can afford to drop a key supplier and find alternatives.

The change is officially to avoid a clash with an EU summit on January 30, but bringing the ministers` meeting forward could speed a decision on when to impose the ban, following US President Barack Obama`s New Year`s Eve move to stop payments to Iran for oil.

The Islamic Republic`s decision to carry out enrichment work deep underground at Fordow could make it much harder for US or Israeli forces to carry out veiled threats to use force against Iranian nuclear facilities. That in turn could narrow a time window for diplomacy to avert any attack.

The US State Department Monday called uranium enrichment at Fordow a "further escalation" of Iran`s "ongoing violations" of UN resolutions.

France called for measures of "unprecedented scale and severity" against Tehran. Germany and Britain also condemned it. Others, including Greece and Italy, which are bigger customers for Iranian oil, are seeking delays before cutting off imports.

Bureau Report