EU leaders threaten Iran and Syria with more sanctions

EU says Iran nuclear talks must be "constructive and substantial"; Russia and China have blocked a broader response to Syria repression.

Ahmadinejad Assad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad Assad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BRUSSELS - European leaders warned Iran on Sunday it would face tougher sanctions if it failed to address concerns about its nuclear program and said they would tighten restrictions on Syria if it continued to repress its population.
At a Brussels summit, the 27 EU states called on Iran to engage in "constructive and substantial talks" with Western powers to bring about a negotiated solution to the nuclear question "to avoid possible future restrictive measures."
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EU leaders called in a statement for the preparation of new sanctions "to be implemented at the appropriate moment in the case that Iran continues not to cooperate seriously nor to meet its obligations."
They also warned Syria the European Union "will impose further and more comprehensive measures against the regime as long as the repression of the civilian population continues."
Washington and the European Union have already pushed four rounds of sanctions through the United Nations over Iran's nuclear program as well as unilateral measures that have deterred Western investment in Iran's oil sector and made it harder to move money in and out of the country.
On Saturday, Iran dismissed a threat by Washington to impose sanctions on its central bank in response to an alleged assassination plot, saying the United Nations would block the plan and other central banks would not accept it.
Imposing sanctions on the central bank would make it more difficult for Iran to receive payment for exports -- particularly oil, a vital source of hard currency for the world's fifth biggest crude exporter.
However, any new UN action would require need the assent of permanent Security Council members Russia and China, which backed previous rounds of sanctions but may be hard to persuade to go further on the basis of the allegations made so far.
The European warning to Iran came after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded last week to an Iranian offer to resume talks by saying there must be no repeat of the last round in January, which ended with no progress.
Ashton has been leading efforts on behalf of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, as well as China and Russia, to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear activities, which the West believes is aimed at building atomic bombs.
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Iran has said it is willing to resume discussions, but insists that other countries recognize its right to enrich uranium, which the West sees as an unacceptable precondition.
Ashton said the six would be willing to resume talks in weeks if Iran was ready to discuss concrete confidence-building measures without pre-conditions. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful production of energy.
The European Union already tightened sanctions against Syria this month, adding the Commercial Bank of Syria to a list of entities sanctioned in protest against repression of dissent.
The United Nations says 3,000 people have died in the unrest in Syria, including at least 187 children. The UN human rights chief has demanded that the world act to stop the carnage and warned of full-blown civil war in the country.
The EU imposed an embargo on crude oil imports from Syria in September and banned EU firms from new investment in its oil industry. It also imposed sanctions on the main mobile phone firm, Syriatel, and the largest private company, Cham Holding.
However, the effect of the EU sanctions has been blunted by the blocking by Russia and China of a UN resolution that could have led to broader imposition of such steps.
The EU leaders urged "all members of the UN Security Council to assume their responsibilities in relation to the situation in Syria."