BRUSSELS - European Union states drawing up details of an oil embargo on Iran have given wide backing to a proposal to allow European entities to continue to receive repayments in oil for debts they are currently owed by Iranian firms, EU diplomats said.

The 27 states are also working towards a phased implementation of a ban on imports of oil and petrochemical products from Iran. One diplomat said a consensus was emerging that the oil import ban should come into force after six months and the petrochemical product ban after three - similar to provisions in US legislation.

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The EU said it brought forward by a week, to Jan. 23, a meeting at which foreign ministers from the bloc, rivaling China as Iran's biggest customer for crude, are expected to confirm an embargo on oil purchases.

Though officially a mere administrative shift to avoid a diary clash with a meeting of EU leaders on Jan. 30, bringing the foreign ministers' meeting forward could increase the pace of implementation of sanctions, following US President Barack Obama's move on New Year's Eve to stop payments to Iran for oil.

Earlier Thursday, Japan pledged to take concrete action to cut Iranian oil imports in response to an appeal for support from visiting US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, as Washington steps up efforts to sanction Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Geithner welcomed Tokyo's cooperation, an encouraging sign for US foreign policy after China rebuffed US sanctions aimed at starving Iran of the oil revenues that provide the country of 74 million people with a vital economic support.

Iran faces the prospects of cutbacks in oil sales to China, Japan and India, its top three buyers who together take more than 40 percent of its crude exports. The European Union, a major buyer, has committed to banning imports of Iranian oil.

Japan Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Iranian crude makes up 10 percent of Japan's overall oil imports.

"We would like to take action concretely to further reduce (that) in a planned manner," he said after meeting Geithner.

"On the other hand, we need some time in non-crude oil related areas, so I asked the Secretary to take Japan's situation into consideration."

Cutting Iranian crude imports would not be without risks for Japan. The country relies on imports for its energy needs and has to import more fuel to make up for waning use of nuclear power following last year's nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

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.

Iran's envoy to the UN nuclear body, 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.

The Islamic Republic's decision to carry out enrichment work deep underground at Fordow could eventually 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 on 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.

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