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(photo credit: Courtesy)
BRUSSELS - The European Union may approve fresh sanctions against Iran within weeks, after a UN agency said Tehran had worked to design nuclear bombs, EU diplomats said on Thursday.
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Iran denies trying to build atom bombs and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said any US or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites would be met with "iron fists."
The United States and Israel have refused to rule out any option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
Diplomats in Brussels said preliminary discussions among EU capitals on new measures had begun and plans may be ready for EU foreign ministers in Brussels to approve on 1 December.
"Experts are discussing a number of options on the table but it is difficult to foresee the outcome of the debate," one EU diplomat said. Another said he expected a formal decision to be reached on 1 December.
EU sanctions would be a significant part of Western efforts to ratchet up pressure on Tehran after the UN nuclear watchdog's report
this week that laid bare a trove of intelligence suggesting Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
Western governments would prefer UN Security Council measures against Tehran, but Russia and China are opposed.
China reiterated its view that sanctions would not work.
"We always believe that dialogue and cooperation is the right way to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. Sanctions cannot fundamentally solve the issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, calling for more diplomacy.
Tehran, which says its nuclear programme is for producing electricity and other peaceful purposes, said on Wednesday it remains ready for negotiations with world powers on the issue.
Western diplomats say only sanctions against Iran's energy sector could exert serious pressure on Tehran, but such steps would also hurt a global economy hit by Europe's debt crisis.
Some EU governments are wary of inflicting economic pain on the Iranian people or of closing potential communication channels by targeting Iranian officials. Others fret about the damage oil sanctions could do to their own economic interests.
Germany, Britain and France, along with the United States, Russia and China, form a group of powers negotiating with Iran. The last round of talks stalled at the start of this year.
Iran already faces a wide range of UN sanctions, as well as some imposed unilaterally by the United States and the EU.
Tension over Iran's nuclear program has increased since Tuesday when the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared
to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret
research to that end.
Media speculation about possible US or Israeli military action has also
intensified since the IAEA report, denounced by Iran as "unbalanced" and
Khamenei said Iran would retaliate against any attack by its foes, but had no intention of starting a "bloody war".
"Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime (Israel), America and its
allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking
about any (military) action will be firmly responded to," Khamenei said
on state television.