EU, Japan move ahead on Iran oil embargo

Meeting on cuts in oil imports brought forward by a week, EU says amid news Tehran enriching uranium deep underground.

Iranian submarine in Strait of Hormuz 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
Iranian submarine in Strait of Hormuz 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
TEHRAN/VIENNA - Europe and Japan moved ahead on 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 also 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.
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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.
In Brussels, the European Union 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.
The 27 EU governments are still debating how quickly some of their ailing and oil-dependent economies can afford to do without a key supplier.
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.
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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