Barak: Tougher sanctions needed for Iran to change course

Tehran takes defiant tone, says EU will backtrack on oil embargo; PM lauds China for reducing purchase of Iranian crude.

Ehud Barak 311 (photo credit: Ariel Tarmoni/Defense Ministry)
Ehud Barak 311
(photo credit: Ariel Tarmoni/Defense Ministry)
Only 24 hours after the European Union ratcheted up its sanctions on Iran and declared a phased embargo on Iranian oil, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday even stiffer sanctions needed to be imposed.
Barak, in an interview with Israel Radio, said that while the steps taken were unprecedented and represented a significant increase of pressure, they still were not enough to get the Iranian leaders to conclude there was no choice but to end the country’s nuclear project.
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“In my opinion, we are not there yet,” he said.
Barak said Israel felt the sanctions timeline needed to be shortened – the oil embargo will only go into effect on July 1, giving the Iranians time to find other markets – and that other measures should be taken, such as forbidding all transactions with Iran’s central bank. On Monday, the EU decided to freeze Iranian central bank assets.
The decision to delay by six months imposition of the embargo was taken because the bloc’s foreign ministers were anxious not to penalize the ailing economies of Greece, Italy and others for whom Iran is a major oil supplier.
The strategy will be reviewed in May to see if it should proceed.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, told the Security Council Tuesday that only the pressure of a united international community can stop Iran.
“The political and economic price that Iran will pay must be clear,” he said. “Israel commends the recent steps taken by the US, the EU, and others in this regard. Although these are important steps, we all must judge them based on their results. It is time for the rest of the international community – and this council – to join these efforts.”
Russia, which sits on the Security Council, slammed the EU’s harsher sanctions, and China – also a permanent Security Council member – has repeatedly made clear its opposition to economic sanctions against Iran.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at a ceremony in Tel Aviv Tuesday night commemorating 20 years of Israeli- Chinese diplomatic ties, said he was pleased to hear that Iran had begun reducing its purchase of Iranian oil.
“I appreciate China’s need to ensure a regular energy supply for the continuation of its impressive development,” he said.
The prime minister said there were alternatives to Iranian crude, and that he hoped “the Chinese leadership will join the European countries and work quickly to completely end its purchase of Iranian oil.”
Senior government officials said the EU sanctions were a clear indication of the degree to which Europe itself felt threatened by a nuclear Iran, which has missiles capable of reaching the continent. The officials said the EU was acting out of a concern for European, not Israeli, interests.
The officials also dismissed the notion that the EU might link its imposition of sanctions on Iran with pressure on Israel to show more flexibility toward the Palestinians.
The issues are not linked, and there are no signs the EU is trying to link them, they said.
Meanwhile, Iranian politicians adopted a defiant tone, saying they expected the European Union to backtrack on its oil embargo, and repeated a threat to close the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping lane if the West succeeded in preventing Tehran from exporting crude.
“The West’s ineffective sanctions against the Islamic state are not a threat to us. They are opportunities and have already brought lots of benefits to the country,” Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi told the official IRNA news agency.
“The global economic situation is not one in which a country can be destroyed by imposing sanctions,” he said, repeating Tehran’s stance that with the EU in economic and monetary crisis, it needs Iran’s oil more than Iran needs its business.
Barak dismissed Iran’s threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, saying it backed away from its threat on Sunday when the US – saying it would not tolerate the closure of the waterway – sailed an aircraft carrier through the straits into the Persian Gulf, accompanied by British and French warships.
“The US spoke in the clearest of terms, and the Iranians folded,” he said.
Barak quoted Turkish President Abdullah Gul as saying a few weeks ago at a conference in Vienna that the Iranians were a “paper tiger” with “iron nails.”
“The iron nails are Hezbollah and Hamas,” he said. “But for all intents and purposes it is a paper tiger. A tiger that talks, but when it comes to a true test like the Straits of Hormuz, they will be forced to fold.”
A spokesman for the Iranian Oil Ministry said the country had had plenty of time to prepare for the sanctions and would find alternative customers for the 18 percent of its exports that up to now have gone to the 27-nation European bloc.
“The first phase of this [sanctions action] is propaganda, only then it will enter the implementation phase. That is why they put in this six-month period, to study the market,” Alireza Nikzad Rahbar said, predicting the embargo could be rescinded before it took force completely.
“This market will harm them, because oil is getting more expensive and when oil gets more expensive it will harm the people of Europe,” state TV quoted him as saying. “We hope that in these six months they will choose the right path.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Danish ambassador on Tuesday to complain about the EU’s “illogical decision,” accusing Europe of doing the bidding of the United States.
“Some elements in the European Union, following America’s policies, are seeking to create tension in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ashghar Khaji told Ambassador Anders Christian Hougaard.
“Europe should be responsible for the consequences of these reckless decisions,” he said, according to IRNA.
Emad Hosseini, spokesman for parliament’s energy committee, said if Iran encountered any problem selling its oil, it would store it.
“If we don’t export our oil to Europe, our oil will be saved and storage of oil will not harm us but we will have a rich storage of oil,” he told the semi-official Fars news agency, adding that Iran retained its threat to shut the Gulf to shipping.
Fitch Ratings issued an assessment of the embargo’s market impact saying it would likely cause an oil price increase.
“However, prices may not necessarily increase markedly from current levels as some of the risks related to the EU ban on Iranian oil appear factored in already,” it said.
The embargo decision had no discernible impact on oil prices as it was a move that had been flagged well in advance and the threat to close Hormuz seemed remote. Brent crude dropped slightly to $110 per barrel on Tuesday.
US President Barack Obama said on Monday the EU sanctions underlined the strength of the international community’s commitment to “addressing the serious threat” presented by the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
“The United States will continue to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran,” he said.
Washington applied its own sanctions to Iran’s oil trade and central bank on December 31, and on Monday extended them to the third largest Iranian bank, state-owned Bank Tejarat, and a Belarus-based affiliate for helping Tehran’s nuclear advance.