The European Union banned imports of oil from Iran on Monday and imposed a number of other economic sanctions, joining the United States in a new round of measures aimed at deflecting Tehran’s nuclear development program.
In Iran, one politician responded by renewing a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, an oil exporting route vital to the global economy, and another said Tehran should cut off oil to the EU immediately.
That might hurt Greece, Italy and other ailing economies which depend heavily on Iranian crude and, as a result, won as part of the EU agreement a grace period until July 1 before the embargo takes full effect.
A day after a US aircraft carrier, accompanied by a flotilla that included French and British warships, made a symbolically loaded voyage into the Gulf in defiance of Iranian hostility, the widely expected EU sanctions move was likely to set off further bellicose rhetoric in an already tense region.
Some analysts say Iran, which denies accusations that it is seeking nuclear weapons, could be in a position to make them next year. So, with Israel warning it could use force to prevent that happening, the row over Tehran’s plans is an increasingly pressing challenge for world leaders, not least US President Barack Obama as he campaigns for re-election in November.
Meeting in Brussels, foreign ministers from the 27-state EU, which as a bloc is Iran’s second-biggest customer for crude after China, agreed to an immediate ban on all new contracts to import, purchase or transport Iranian crude oil and petroleum products. However, EU countries with existing contracts to buy oil and petroleum products can honour them up to July 1.
EU officials said they also agreed to freeze the assets of Iran’s central bank and ban trade in gold and other precious metals with the bank and state bodies.
Along with US sanctions imposed on Dec. 31, the Western powers hope choking exports and hence funding can force Iran’s leaders to agree to curbs on a nuclear programme the West says is intended to yield weapons.
On Sunday carrier USS Abraham Lincoln completed a “regular and routine” passage through the strait, “as previously scheduled and without incident,” said Lieutenant Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet.
The Lincoln, accompanied by strike group of warships, was the first US aircraft carrier to enter the Gulf since late December and was on a routine rotation to replace the outgoing USS John C. Stennis.
The departure of the Stennis prompted Iranian army Chief Ataollah Salehi to threaten action if the carrier passed back into the Gulf.
“I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. ... We are not in the habit of warning more than once,” he said.