'EU poised to agree on ban of Iranian gas imports'

Diplomats preparing package of sanctions against Iran with goal of formally adopting them at FM meeting.

Iranian oil platform, Iran flag (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian oil platform, Iran flag
(photo credit: Reuters)
The European Union is poised to ban imports of Iranian natural gas as part of a set of new measures to ratchet up pressure on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, diplomats said on Thursday.
Diplomats from EU member states have started preparing a package of sanctions against Iran with a goal of formally adopting them at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on October 15.
Late on Wednesday, they reached a preliminary deal to ban gas imports, the first measure to win approval in the package, which also consists of various finance- and energy-related proposals, three EU diplomats said.
“There is agreement on gas,” one of the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The big states back it, Germany, Britain, France,” another one said.
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An Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the pressure on Iran had to be increased until it halted its nuclear program.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently called on the international community to stiffen the economic sanctions against Tehran.
“It is clear that up until now, despite the fact that the sanctions have taken their toll, that the Iranians have not in any way slowed down their pursuit of nuclear weapons,” the Israeli official said.
In Tehran on Thursday, the Grand Bazaar stayed shut and police patrolled the area as authorities struggled to restore normalcy a day after security forces clashed with anti-government protesters angered by the collapse of the country’s currency.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told Army Radio that he believed the protests would continue.
He said his ministry “was perhaps the first to recognize, already weeks ago, that the Arab Spring will be followed by the Persian Spring.”
He added that this week’s protest in Tehran “was just the first buds [of that spring].”
The protests will increase in the run-up to the Iranian presidential election next June, he said.
Western countries and international institutions had to be prepared to help the protesters.
This includes the UN Security Council and the EU, Liberman added.
“I have no doubt that the Iranian regime is approaching a critical moment. The big question is what will happen faster, or which will come [to fruition] first – Iran’s military nuclear plans or the Persian Spring,” he said. “We have to be prepared for both possibilities.”
On Wednesday, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor said that in light of the protests, now was the time to increase sanctions. He worked this week in Paris with French officials on increasing the sanctions against Iran.
European governments and the US are searching for fresh ways to pressure Tehran into scaling back its nuclear program after diplomacy foundered earlier this year.
Since 1995 the US has banned American companies from investing in Iranian oil and gas and from trading with Iran. Last December it adopted steps that prompted buyers in Japan, South Korea and India to cut Iranian oil purchases and in July it announced sanctions against foreign banks helping Tehran sell oil.
The European Union has been much slower to target Iranian energy. It imposed an embargo on Iranian oil this year, after banning the creation of joint ventures with enterprises in Iran engaged in the oil and natural gas industries in 2010.
Existing sanctions cover investment in Iranian gas, but do not specifically outlaw imports, which are insignificant in terms of volume but have a symbolic importance.
The EU sources said any Iranian gas that reached Europe came via Turkey, which blended it with Azeri gas and shipped it on.
Greece and Bulgaria are the two EU nations in prime position to receive gas via Turkey, and one diplomat said details still had to be decided on how they might be affected.
“The modalities are still to be worked out,” he said.
Analysts and industry sources said it would be almost impossible to identify the quantities involved.
“You might have a situation in which physically, an Iranian gas molecule gets to Europe,” one industry source said on condition of anonymity. “But this is like inhaling an air molecule from the last gasp of Julius Caesar, which due to the laws of volume, we all do from time to time.”
The EU diplomats said there was a risk the bloc’s plans to tighten sanctions could alienate Turkey, which has a pivotal role in the European Commission’s aspirations to diversify gas supplies away from dominant supplier Russia, but it was a risk worth taking.
In any case, one of the sources said Turkey was likely to ignore the ban.
“There are two possibilities: Either Turkey goes with it or Turkey maintains imports silently,” the source said.
Ankara controls a huge part of a planned new export route for shipping Azeri gas, which would link up with one of two pipelines shortlisted to complete the journey into the EU.
A protracted territorial dispute between current EU president Cyprus and Turkey has soured ties between Ankara and the European Union, but one of the sources said relations could probably withstand a ban on Iranian gas.
“Relations between Turkey and Europe are not very good, but they’re not very bad,” he said.